bulimia, stigma, disordered eating, recovery

In last week’s blog post, we again discussed the potential impact of mainstream fiction on stigma, depending on the nature of portrayals of characters with mental illness.  When books depict characters with mental illness as whole people, with characteristics and desires unrelated to the illness, these books can be helpful in combating negative stereotypes-especially when the book is a genre novel that features mental health themes within the context of other plot lines.

In Caroline Mitchell’s Silent Victim (2018), the heroine struggles with bulimia.  Shamed for her weight by her mother and then ultimately abandoned by that woman, Emma seeks solace in disordered eating:

“My eating disorder was my constant companion, surfacing in times of stress.  A chubby child, I was berated by my mother, which in turn led me to find comfort in food.  Now I gained control via the starving-bingeing-purging cycle whenever stress re-emerged.  It was difficult to label what I carried inside me.  Bulimia seemed too small a word to cover it.”

Emma’s vulnerability also attracts the attention of a predatory art teacher, Luke, who orchestrates a campaign of grooming and seduction.  His abusive behavior is reported to police, after which he apparently begins stalking Emma.  Devastated by the loss of his wife, Emma’s father is an ineffective parent who cannot defend her.

Mitchell tells this story at various points in time and through the eyes of Emma, her husband Alex, and Luke.  Adult Emma is a happily married mother of a preschooler, with a successful bridal gown shop that employs her sister Theresa.  But when Alex insists on selling their house to pursue a position with a different real estate agency, Emma’s stress level skyrockets and her disordered eating re-emerges.  She’s terrified that potential buyers will find Luke’s body in the backyard, where she left it after confronting him with a shovel.

As Emma begins to reveal her secrets to Alex, he becomes increasingly concerned about her mental health.   Though shocked to discover that his wife is a murderer, he is initially supportive and compassionate.  He subtly increases his attention to Emma’s food consumption and eventually seeks out Theresa for advice on how better to help her.  His doubts about her stability increase over time, though, ultimately causing Emma to feel stigmatized:

“Still, he avoided my gaze.  Why wouldn’t he look at me?  Was he so ashamed of what I had become?  Did he think that having an eating disorder made me a compulsive liar?”

The couple is eventually able to reconnect, and it becomes clear that Alex’s concerns center on the murder and the uncertain paternity of his son and not on Emma’s eating disorder.

Notably, this book also emphasizes family support in Emma’s recovery.  Though their father is limited in his ability to parent, Theresa is a source of loving nurturance:

“’No judgment,’ she said, squeezing my hands.  It was what she said to me in the early days, when she was helping me through my bulimia.  Such expressions of love made me want to cry.”

Stigma around mental illness is an enduring issue that can cause additional suffering.  Fictional portrayals of individuals with mental illness living fulfilling lives with successful relationships can be helpful in combating that stigma.