(1960 - 2002)
The New York Times
LET’S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME, A Memoir of Friendship
A Memoir of Caroline Knapp by Gail Caldwell
'Appetites: Why Women Want' by Caroline Knapp
Reviewed by Liza
Sunday, May 4, 2003; Page BW03
Why Women Want
By Caroline Knapp
Counterpoint. 210 pp. $24
In her 1996 memoir Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp chronicled a passionate attachment to drink and that love affair's devastating end. Knapp died in June 2002, shortly after completing Appetites. This new book covers some of the same terrain -- her family, repression, desire -- but focuses on her struggles with anorexia and their larger cultural significance.
Knapp asks why women are so conflicted, not only about food but about success, sex, love and pleasure. She locates her own experience in the historical context of the 1980s, which was when, in her twenties, she began deliberately and methodically starving herself -- until she eventually weighed 83 pounds. The women's liberation movement had achieved tremendous gains, freeing many women to lead lives unimaginable in earlier decades, yet it had also nearly vanished from the social and political landscape. This left young women with scant language to describe their struggles, and almost zero cultural acceptance for such discussion.
For many like Knapp, whose mothers had come of age before feminism, becoming young women was further complicated by guilt: Unconsciously, they found it difficult to leave their mothers' legacy of self-deprivation behind, and mothers sometimes resented the possibilities of their daughters' lives -- their professional achievements, their sexuality and their choices. Many daughters meted out complex self-punishments, allowing themselves to succeed professionally, for example, but not to eat.
Like Knapp's earlier work, Appetites is beautifully written, and her cultural insights, though not always original, are powerfully rendered. The images of her waiting all day for the moment when she will permit herself a piece of apple and cheese for dinner are stark and affecting. Yet in its arguments and structure, Appetites is murkier than Drinking, far less consistently anchored in narrative and in telling details. The new book also feels tiredly familiar at times, which has much to do with Knapp's choice of subject. While few women before her had written honestly and thoughtfully about drinking, anorexia memoirs and even feminist cultural analysis of the problem are common.
Knapp readily acknowledges that experiences of appetite differ radically across class lines, and that much of America is at far greater risk of obesity than of starvation. (While 5 million American women are anorexic or bulimic, about 50 million Americans are dangerously obese.) I wish she had delved further into the culture of overeating; though hardly unique to women, obesity in its current epidemic form reflects a collective ambivalence about desire just as surely as our fashion magazines and their many sad, determined imitators do. Knapp correctly notes that obesity is often genetic and unrelated to caloric intake, but she emphasizes this too much -- the connection between rising obesity levels, fast food and supersize portions is also well-documented.
Like anorexia, obesity can reflect a confusion, at once personal and social, about the meaning of the word "enough." I recently watched a TV program featuring a woman who had undergone stomach stapling surgery -- generally a last resort in the treatment of morbid obesity, performed when a person's weight has begun to threaten her life. After the operation, the woman's doctors told her to eat only when she was hungry. She seemed sincerely baffled by this directive. "Who does that?" she asked. Like the image of young Caroline Knapp starving alone in her room, such moments suggest the deadly perils of living in a society so deeply focused on accumulation and consumption, and so deeply estranged from natural hungers.
The most disturbing aspect of Appetites is its most startling omission. Despite this book's eloquence on the subjects of sex, food, ambition, self-hatred and the desire to suppress one's deepest feelings, it contains no discussion of cigarette smoking, which is, at least for women, fundamentally about all of these things. This omission is a lost analytic and literary opportunity, to be sure, but it also reflects a strange blindness: Knapp, who died of lung cancer at the age of 42, had been smoking since her twenties. In Drinking, she mentions briefly attending a smoking cessation program before realizing that she was treating the wrong addiction, that drinking was her real problem. In that book, she also recalls with apparent puzzlement her mother's dying wish that she give up smoking, as if, considering her alcoholism, this was somehow beside the point.
Given Knapp's insight and her talents for description and self-discovery, it is tragic for all of us that she didn't write about smoking. One can't help thinking, too, that if she'd done so years ago, she might be alive and writing today. •
Liza Featherstone is the author of "Woman's Work," a study of sex discrimination at Wal-Mart, to be published in 2004.
June 15, 2003, Sunday
BOOKS IN BRIEF: NONFICTION
Why Women Want.
by Caroline Knapp.
Caroline Knapp's anorexia was so severe when she was 21 that her knees were larger than her thighs. She argues in ''Appetites'' that her disorder was born of burdens and fears that women commonly experience. She seeks to answer not ''Why Women Want'' but why women's wants are so complicated. Granted new opportunities, contemporary women are able to confront their desires, but with ''precious few examples of how to negotiate a buffet of possibility, much less embrace one.'' They must take responsibility for uncertain futures amid a chorus of discouraging messages, and that, Knapp argues, creates the anxiety from which many disorders spring: anorexia, drug addiction, compulsive shopping. Knapp, who died last year, was an expert in such excesses; ''Appetites'' displays the same unflinching analysis she used to analyze her battle with alcoholism in ''Drinking: A Love Story.'' The book is intelligent but obsessive; Knapp's dramatic tone sometimes assigns beauty to conditions that should only be described as ugly, but she also exposes the underlying heartache. She writes of alcohol's ''great golden relief,'' anorexia's ''balm of safety and containment'' that protected her from ''the ordinary, fraught world of human hunger'' and left her ''in a private kingdom of calm.'' Wary of the destruction she caused herself, Knapp spent much of her adult life desperately seeking the comfort of answers. Jillian Dunham
Published: 06 - 15 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 14
Nourishment for a hungry heart
Insights from the anorexia front
By Mary Loeffelholz, 5/11/2003
Caroline Knapp's two previous bestsellers, ''Drinking: A Love Story'' and ''Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs,'' anatomized desires and intimate relationships at the margins of speakability, especially for women. Her posthumously published ''Appetites: Why Women Want'' takes on women's troubled relationship to the broader category of appetite itself. As her subtitle's pun on Freud's famous question '' What do women want?'' suggests, Knapp seeks to look past the only-too-interchangeable concrete objects of women's desire (feeling unloved? just go shopping) to the more fundamental conundrum of why women experience ''a particularly female blend of anxiety, guilt, shame, and sorrow'' in the face of their own longings.
All appetites, however, are not equal in the book: Weight and body image dominate Knapp's account of what it means for women to want. Knapp incorporates other women's experiences, but the narrative spine of ''Appetites'' is the story of her own battle with anorexia. The illness took root, she feels, in her family's distrust of hunger and female ambition and emerged to dominate her life when she left college. Knapp writes with rigorous candor of her self-starvation, detailing her solitary eating rituals, her evasion of family and friends, and her satisfaction with the gaunt body acknowledged by her mirror. She does not cast herself simply as the passive victim of all-encompassing social powers; the ''steely cocoon'' of her body, she recalls, was ''proof of transcendence over ordinary human need,'' testimony to a form of control seized from both bodily and social compulsion.
Taking their relation to food as the template for women's unhappy relation to other appetites makes sense, of course, not only common sense but also theoretical sense within the psychoanalytic framework that Knapp (the daughter of a psychoanalyst) often turns to in explaining the ambivalence toward the female body and its hungers that infant girls seem to suck in along with mother's milk. And yet what results is a more predictable tale than the eccentric or taboo longings that are the subject of Knapp's earlier books. As the publisher's blurb for ''Appetites'' observes, its concerns are ''deeply familiar.'' In Knapp's astute self-analysis, her anorexia was ''a way to take all hungers - so varied and vast - and boil them down to their essence, one appetite to manage, just one.'' As ''Appetites'' represents them, though, women's hungers seem little more varied or vast than they do in most middle-class women's magazines; the book does not quite burst the bounds of the confinement it so painfully describes.
''Appetites'' feels deeply familiar in other ways as well, especially in its focus on ''primarily white, affluent, and highly-educated'' - and, Knapp might have added, heterosexual - women's experience as representative of all women's experience. Knapp concedes both that nonwhite women may have different experiences of body anxieties and that the concerns of ''Appetites'' would be utterly alien to women whose knowledge of hunger stems from the imperatives of physical survival. Even so, the book's analysis of its chosen social turf is impoverished by its reluctance to consider how the existence of other sorts of women impinges upon the experience of the women who pass through the pages of ''Appetites'' brooding over dessert and scraping dressing off their salads.
One open social secret unacknowledged in ''Appetites'' is that for affluent white women, thinness stands among other things for distance from women of other races and classes. Following an extended lunch in a ''chic midtown Manhattan bistro'' with two friends, both veterans of their own weight wars, Knapp asks whether her friends' vigilance over their bodies is ''a form of cultural enslavement ... to the gods of patriarchy,'' or as they prefer to think, ''a choice, part of an aesthetic that women themselves have cultivated.'' Among the knot of motives Knapp struggles to untangle here must be all three women's tacit certainty that thinness is their shared marker of class privilege as well as femininity.
''Appetites'' features only one direct encounter with a genuinely different perspective, a meeting between Knapp and Leslie, a 265-pound graduate student who has not only embraced her weight but also forced others to acknowledge it. For Knapp, this is both an encounter with her own worst nightmare and a glimpse of an alternative universe in which a woman's will exercises itself through rather than against the flesh.
Knapp's own recovery from anorexia found a socially more acceptable way of exercising mastery through the body: Taking up rowing, she eventually was able to welcome the muscle mass it brought back to her thighs, arms, back. Muscle is not, of course, the unspeakable fat, and exercise is increasingly the recourse of middle-class women trying to discipline their bodies in constructive rather than sheerly negative modes. As Knapp points out, this is a kind of lived feminism, even though one not fully detached from consumer culture.
''Appetites'' envisions few public or political solutions for women's troubled appetites. The hopeful developments on which Knapp ends are rooted in women's traditionally private sphere: her sister's baby, a friend's adoption of a Chinese girl, a middle-aged woman's conversion from anorexia to Episcopalian faith. Here again, Knapp's tight focus on a particular band of middle-class womanhood screens out other possibilities. Given the pervasive dailiness of the injuries Knapp movingly describes, healing women's relation to desire may require a broader perspective not only on appetite as a category, but also on women.
Appetites: Why Women Want
By Caroline Knapp
Counterpoint, 210 pp., $24
M ary Loeffelholz is a member of the English department at Northeastern University.
Emotional hunger fills 'Appetites'
By Verna Noel Jones, Special To The News
May 2, 2003
What do we truly hunger for?
For some, it is the quest to be thin and beautiful. For others, it is to own more, have the best, be the most desired. Author Caroline Knapp calls these appetites, and in her book of the same name deems them the source of an emotional hunger that disorders people's lives.
Knapp struggled with anorexia from age 21, weighing in at 83 pounds though she stood at 5-foot-4. For three years she ate the same daily meals: one plain sesame bagel for breakfast, a yogurt for lunch and an apple and a 1-inch cube of cheese for dinner.
Nevertheless, she was always cold and unhappy, she had no breasts, she couldn't menstruate and she didn't have a clue as to why she was starving herself.
After eventually gaining control of her eating habits, Knapp looked back and explained her compulsion: "Anorexics are masters of exaggeration, they take a certain satisfaction in going the average woman one better, internalizing her worst fears and then inflating them, flaunting them, throwing them back in her face."
At a time when she felt adrift and confused and deeply unsure of herself, Knapp found that starving gave her a goal, a way to stand out and exert control, something she could be good at. But when she finally gave it up, she then moved on to having an affair with her college thesis adviser and then to binge spending and excessive drinking.
Appetites is mostly a book of questioning and self-examination. Knapp agonizes over the difficulties in her life, with all its extremes and insecurities, and she tries desperately to pinpoint their origin. At times, she blames family dynamics and a mother who didn't care enough.
She also goes after the culture within which she grew up, blaming seductive ads and magazine articles for controlling what a woman should desire. She notes that we are continually urged to spend, spend, spend as financial institutions bury us in pre-approved credit card applications.
Appetites is disturbing for its frankness and the deeply honest feelings of despair the author shares page after page. However, her pain doesn't make you want to keep reading. It's depressing. Knapp dabbles with resolutions to her problems and she tries to convince the reader that she's left her emotional hunger behind. Yet she seems merely to be tossing about in an open sea, with dry land in sight but not within reach.
Sadly, Knapp died of lung cancer at age 42, just before this book was published. Previously, she wrote two best-selling books, Drinking: A Love Story and Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs.
In this last book, she wants women to understand that they must control their own destinies, rather than be negatively influenced by external forces. Yet at book's end, the "how" is still dangling out there.
Verna Noel Jones is a free-lance writer living in Aurora.
The hunger artist
Caroline Knapp's final book is both the smartest anorexia memoir ever written and a fascinating journey along the tortuous pathways of female desire.
By Laura Miller
May 22, 2003 | The late Caroline Knapp was not Everywoman, but there were enough women -- and men -- who felt that her writing spoke directly to them to put her first book, the memoir "Drinking: A Love Story," on the bestseller list. Her second book, about the relationship between people and dogs, did nearly as well. Her third, "Appetites," published now, a year after she died at 42 from complications arising from lung cancer, may seem like the culmination of her writings just because it is the last one we'll have from her. But the scope of the book, its effort to root out all the ways that women's desires get twisted, thwarted, redirected and obliterated, using her own youthful bout with anorexia as a case in point, suggests that "Appetites" was a keystone work for her.
It's also a heart-rending one, because despite the manifest intelligence and sensitivity of Knapp's writing -- this is quite possibly the smartest and deepest anorexia memoir ever written, and it's also more than just a memoir -- she only occasionally manages to grasp the source of the agonies she details so well. It's as if she's trying to describe a yard behind a tall fence, a scene she can only catch glimpses of by jumping as high as she can. There's a flash of the other side here, and again there, but often she's just telling us about the fence. Yet you can't help but think that Knapp almost made it over that barrier, and that if she had been given a few more years she would have arrived in full.
In "Appetites," Knapp sees eating disorders as one in an array of screwed-up responses to the fears stirred up by women's cravings: for food, yes, but also for sex, love, recognition and power. She touches on everything from compulsive shopping to obsessive love affairs to self-cutting, but self-starvation remains for her the most eloquent acting out of that fear. In her early 20s, during a period of flux in her life, Knapp subsisted on a daily diet of one plain sesame bagel, a carton of coffee-flavored yogurt, an apple and a one-inch cube of cheese. At the lowest point in her illness, she weighed 83 pounds, about 40 pounds less than her normal weight.
After years of therapy, Knapp did recover, though she confesses that she never entirely shook the tendency toward "weighing, measuring, calculating, monitoring" her eating and exercise habits. (She also wrestled with alcoholism later on, as she recounted in "Drinking: A Love Story.") And as the author well knows, she has plenty of company in that self-scrutiny, even among women who have never suffered from full-blown eating disorders. "It's hard to think of a woman who hasn't grappled to one degree or another with precisely the same fears, feelings and pressures that drove me to starve."
There are several theories about what causes anorexia, but they tend to break down into one of two categories: Either the illness is triggered by a culture that demands slenderness in women while remaining profoundly ambivalent about womanhood itself, or it's a reaction to a particular kind of family dynamic -- overprotective, rigid, suffocating. Knapp doesn't subscribe to either theory; she believes that more than cultural factors are at work, and her own family doesn't match the classic profile. She does, however, feel that both elements contribute to anorexia, which, "like all disorders of the appetite, is a solution to a wide variety of conflicts and fears." Or rather, "it starts out resembling a solution: something feels perversely good, or right, or gratifying about it, some key seems to slide into place, some distress is assuaged, and the benefits of this are strong enough to outweigh whatever negative or painful feelings are aroused."
Knapp's ability to articulate the haze of neurotic thinking helps lift "Appetites" above the run-of-the-mill anorexia memoir. She writes of "the strange solace of starving -- the cocoon of safety it seemed to offer: in my own blind terror, anorexia beckoned, the memory of those early sensations of mastery and control seemed to promise exquisite relief." And also of the anorexic's "proud sensation that I was somehow beyond ordinary need" and "coolly superior" to other women. She describes the less pathological, commonplace version of feminine body-loathing as "slithering, poisonous, laced with self-contempt ... it can hit like a slap, a reflexive, often wholly irrational jolt of self-disgust that rises up from a place so deep it feels like instinct."
Knapp isn't, however, perfectly immune to cliché. She begins the book with a favorite device of writers protesting contemporary body image woes, a paean to Renoir's "Bathers," a painting in which "there is love for women in each detail of the canvas, and love for self, and there is joy, and there is a degree of sensual integration that makes you want to weep, so beautiful it seems, and so elusive." If Renoir's women could speak, perhaps they'd elaborate on the elusiveness in their time (1918) of effective birth control, meaningful and remunerative nondomestic work, and the vote, among other things. It's been damnably hard to get both forms of liberation at the same time.
Knapp knows this. She describes herself as belonging to a generation of Americans who were "heiresses of the women's movement, of the sexual revolution, of relaxed gender roles, of access to everything from abortion to education, and to a large extent, that legacy blasted open female desire." An unabashed, if somewhat baffled feminist, Knapp observes that "we had more opportunities and freedoms at our disposal than any other group of women at any other time in modern history; we could do anything, be anything, define our lives any way we saw fit. And yet by the age of 21, I'd find myself whittled down to a skeletal form." All of the energy and attention she might have spent on doing or being "anything," she instead devoted to getting through the day on 800 calories or less.
I think Knapp hits the bulls-eye when she attributes her anorexia and the other distracting and soul-sapping disorders and addictions that sidetrack her generation (and mine) to "the anxiety that crops up alongside new, untested freedoms, and the guilt that's aroused when a woman tests old and deeply entrenched rules about gender and femininity." She's less convincing when she's railing against media imagery and "seeds of self-denial" that "are still planted and encouraged" in girls during childhood.
It's not that these forces aren't noxious -- the imagery is manipulative and phony, the subtle cues to put others first are real. But the world is rife with sabotage, conflict and temptation no matter who you are, and that's not likely to change, ever. Society may eventually overcome its "ambivalence about female power," but power, whenever it's exercised, tends to push aside someone else's ideas or plans, and that's seldom wholeheartedly welcomed. It's hard to do anything significant in the world without making yourself unliked in some quarter (even if it's only among the ranks of the ineffective). Accepting that is part of the art of exerting authority, and it will never be easy. The real question is less "Why doesn't society encourage women to exert their will?" than "Why are women so easily discouraged?"
Is the lack of "entitlement" Knapp detects everywhere among her cohort imposed from without or assumed from within? The author herself seems unsure. She can readily see that her own anorexia provided an overarching and all-consuming structure for her life at a time when she literally did not know what to make of herself: "I did not think, during those years, about how scared I was of the world, or how lost and shapeless I felt." The lifting of many of the traditional rules and regulations of femininity led to this sensation (surely unknown to Renoir's bathers, or any previous population of women) of being "untethered."
For a feeling of "power and competence" to really take hold at the "visceral level," Knapp insists, "entitlement must exist beyond the self; it must be known and acknowledged on a wider plane." When it's not, as was the case with her generation, the result is a freedom that is "both incomplete and highly qualified, full of risks." But how can freedom ever not be risky? And whose freedom is ever "complete"? The dilemma facing the youthful Knapp and millions of other Western women is universal to the human condition: Freedom is not safe.
Sometimes Knapp seems to get this. "The freedom to choose," she writes, "means the freedom to make mistakes, to falter and fail, to come face-to-face with our own flaws and limitations and fears and secrets, to live with the terrible uncertainty that necessarily attends the construction of the self." On the other hand, she keeps slipping back into victimology, blaming the media for beating down women with "images of femininity that infantilize them, render them passive and frail and nonthreatening." Yet passive and frail and nonthreatening is often exactly how Knapp describes herself and the afflicted women who populate her book, so crippled by anxiety and the addictions and disorders that arise from it that they can barely keep themselves alive and functioning.
Furthermore, though Knapp complains that when "women get psychically larger ... they're told to grow physically smaller" by "a culture that was (and still is) both male-dominated and deeply committed to its traditional power structures," every instance she lists of the monitoring and dunning of women is perpetrated by other women. From the gang of friends she hung out with in high school who occupied themselves with detailing other girls' best features and worst flaws to mothers who chip away at their daughters' self-esteem to the semi-deification of model Elle MacPherson on the cover of Shape magazine, it's always a female hand that's holding the lash. The photograph of the preternaturally gorgeous MacPherson is, Knapp maintains, "as inviting to men as it is shaming to women," but let's face it: Men don't buy or read Shape magazine.
If the image of MacPherson feels like a "visual slap" to the women who see it -- and, by all accounts, for many it does -- then why do they keep coming back for more? (Memo to the disgruntled women's magazine readers of America: Stop buying this stuff, and they'll stop putting it out there.) If it's true that "ads tell us who we are supposed to be," is it also true that we have to obey them? Even the very personal factors that contribute to anorexia, what Knapp sees as a widespread inability of mothers to sufficiently love their daughters and "model" a life of fulfillment and confidence, are not ironclad determinants of women's lives. It's possible to come to terms with a difficult childhood and still attain a good measure of happiness, after all.
Or maybe we're just unlucky, born at the wrong time. Knapp laments that she "missed the feminist boat" and writes that she has "always believed, perhaps naively, that if I'd reached my college years in 1968 instead of 1978, I might have turned out quite differently, developed a more radicalized view of myself and other women." Is this -- wishing that a movement had come along to direct her life in a good way -- so very different from wishing that women's magazines would stop trying to direct it in a bad way? Either way, she would still be what she jokingly calls a "zeitgeist sheep," clay to be molded by someone else's hands.
Here's another way Knapp might have looked at it: The previous generation of feminists had the task of fighting with an entrenched power structure to secure for women the freedom of first-class citizens. It was (mostly) a public, external battle, and they triumphed on many, if not all, fronts. Knapp's generation is the first of many charged with figuring out how to live the life that's been won for them, to expand its perimeter a bit further here and there, but mostly to inhabit a liberty that is scary, confusing, perilous and demanding -- as all liberties are.
The dilemma is textbook existentialism. Some preferred the predictability and anonymity of the old prison and found a way to return to it, or, failing that, forged a new set of chains, this time imposed from within. Knapp started out wearing just such a set of self-created bonds, but eventually managed to work her way free -- almost.
Knapp is such a thoughtful and big-hearted writer I wanted her to end "Appetites" on a note of sharper clarity about women's responsibility for their own misery in this area, an inkling that she can do more than just fret about it, if only by resolving to stay away from women's magazines and abstain from participating in critiques of other women's bodies (two simple ways of counteracting the negative forces she decries). Instead, she ends on a tremulous note of hope: Maybe "feminism" will someday explore the "least-touched frontier" of female appetite, maybe her newborn niece will get to participate in "a new tide of agitation." In turn, I found myself hoping that sometime after she finished writing those words, Knapp realized that she was gazing out over a well-tended stake on that frontier, and gave herself credit for just how far she'd come.
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon.
Related stories (*)
Consciousness on overload
A memoirist seeks to untangle the mass of contradictory emotions following the tragedy that changed our lives forever.
By Caroline Knapp
The Merry Recluse
A single woman chooses a life of solitude in the Land of We.
By Caroline Knapp
When I quit drinking the feeling of victory lasted two years. How was I to know the hardest part was yet to come?
By Caroline Knapp
March 1, 1999
After years of thinking my shyness only affected me, I realize the social impact of hiding in my living room with the shades drawn.
By Caroline Knapp
March 5, 1999
(*) Those stories can be read here
Caroline Knapp died last year at the age of 42 from lung cancer one month after her diagnosis, and it's difficult to read her posthumously published "Appetites: Why Women Want" without being poignantly aware that she was unconsciously near the end while so close to fully realizing herself. This sad sweet fact also makes you aware of this thing called life and those who make it richer by relentless self-examination. Part of Knapp's brilliance, besides her elegant and smart style, was how she bravely transformed her private obstacles into witty and lucid epiphanies for her readers, from her Alice K. column for the Boston Phoenix to her 1996 memoir "Drinking: A Love Story," chronicling her battle with alcoholism. "Appetites" draws from an earlier period of her life, when she struggled with anorexia in her early twenties while first a bright honors student at Brown and then a talented cub reporter. But this book transcends the subject of eating disorders to tackle a more universal theme, the complex seesaw of female desire and want, of a hunger that can't be satisfied by food or sex or shopping. Knapp asks the big philosophical questions, on agency and the anxiety of too much freedom, the ways in which daughters rehearse their mothers' pasts, and how culture is to blame for women's relationship to their bodies but not the sole demon. "I literally ached with hunger: My stomach throbbed with it; my ribs dug into my sides when I tried to sleep at night," she writes about her anorexic skeletal frame. "I could not express what I'd been feeling with words, but I could wear it. The inner life--hunger, confusion, longings unnamed and unmet, that whole overwhelming gamut--as a sculpture in bone." Knapp interweaves her story with those of her friends, as well as thoughts about the feminist canon, advertising, our diet-sick culture, as well as traumatizing family dynamics, to deeply examine what it means to be truly fed, in both body and soul. What more can be said than that this is an important book, and I wish that there could be more of them.
Appetites: Why Women Want
By Caroline Knapp
Counterpoint/Perseus Books, $24, 210 pages
The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays, By Caroline Knapp, Counterpoint, 256 pp., $24.95
Caroline Knapp had a lot to say on many topics, and she voiced her opinions with hard-won humor and grace. The essay collection, "The Merry Recluse," chronicles 15 years of personal and cultural changes. It also creates a powerful portrait of a writer who died much too young, two years ago, at age 42.
Boston-area readers may recognize Knapp's writing from the Boston Phoenix in the 1990s. She wrote a regular column, "Alice K. (not her real initial)," which narrated the highs and lows of an urban single woman's life. Knapp was also the first regular contributor to the Phoenix feature "Out There," where her features and essays covered anything from the elderly in modern society to a grown woman's need for approval.
Readers outside Boston may recognize Knapp's style from her essays in The New York Times, New Woman, online in Salon.com, and on radio with WBUR.
Knapp was a woman of great talent and strong addictions. She memorably described her struggles with alcohol and anorexia in "Drinking: A Love Story" (1996), and her posthumously published "Appetites: Why Women Want" (2003). During the decades when she was battling these, she also suffered the loss of both parents, moved to Cambridge and adopted the city as her home, became an aunt twice over, and was in and out of various relationships.
With all that was going on in Knapp's life, it's a wonder she had time to write, but writing is what she did -- very, very well.
Memorable essayists read like poets who have chosen a longer form. Much of Knapp's writing often soars into this lyrical realm.
In the essay "Letter to Zoe," Knapp reflects on her relationship with her toddler niece. Knapp met Zoe hours after she was born, a being "with fingernails so small and perfectly formed they looked like they'd been imagined."
Even though she adores her niece, this 30-something single aunt does not yearn for motherhood. In "Confessions of a Control Freak," Knapp is clear about how important order is in her daily life: "The skills I've picked up over the years seem, in several important respects, almost antithetical to the business of becoming a mother." These include being enjoyably, obsessively organized, and spending long hours at work, at exercise, with friends, and in time alone. Knapp does not want these routines interrupted, but acknowledges: "It can be most unsettling to see yourself as a woman who simply won't have kids."
Living with contradiction is a theme in many essays, and makes the voice that governs these pages an essentially female one. She writes -- with humor and without apology -- of wanting to fill emotional spaces with food, yet craving a small, angular body, and of needing community, yet longing for solitude. The book title is from an essay she wrote for Salon.com on the joys of solitude.
Together, these essays are a potent blend of the very serious and the highly comical.
There are essays on timeless themes: family, friendship, grief, loss, and sobriety. Sobriety as a timeless issue? Here it's woven into all the other matters of the heart, as it's often inextricably linked in real life.
It can take great courage to face life "without anesthesia": the aid of alcohol or the separateness of anorexia. In a style that is almost distressingly honest, Knapp recounts drinking through the loss of her parents, and of the difficulties and the benefits of shedding alcohol and starvation as mechanisms for survival.
Knapp writes wistfully of the "parental grace period" -- "a small window of freedom, in which you are too old to be dominated by your parents but too young to really worry about them."
On money, she confesses, "I hate dealing with it, thinking about it, managing it, planning for it, and accounting for it. On the other hand, I don't have too many problems spending it, which complicates matters considerably."
Lest you think she's just being irresponsible, she shares her overwhelming fear of money's "equal power to protect or devastate."
The only times the essays appear thin are when Knapp rummages deeply in the women's magazine closet: the few musings on why men like air guitars and why women have bad hair days seem drained of her voice, interchangeable with any glossy feature.
But she is unforgettable when writing about the intricacies of female friendship, about being shy, about the power of exercise for making women strong in many ways, about subtle power relationships in work and academia, and about truly creating a home.
As you read these essays, what you may be aware of more than you'd like to admit is that this writer will not write anymore, even though she had so much more to say. Her voice is so clear that you will miss her even if you have never met her.
I ate nothing but cottage cheese and rice cakes. I was a set of bones hunkered over a tiny saucer. What was I feeling? What was I trying, so desperately, not to feel?
May 22, 2003 | What is this drive to be thinner, prettier, better dressed, other? Who exactly is this other and what does she look like beyond the jacket she's wearing or the food she's not eating? What might we be doing, thinking, feeling about if we didn't think about body image, ever? These are the questions that pain me when I think of myself at twenty-one and twenty-two and twenty-three, a set of bones hunkered over a tiny saucer, nibbling at those miniature squares of apple and cheese. What was I feeling? What was I trying, so desperately, not to feel?
- - - - - - - - - - - -
I have probably grappled with the matter of appetite my whole life -- a lot of women do; we're taught to do battle with our own desires from a tender age, and reinforcements are called in over time on virtually every front -- but if I had to pinpoint a defining moment in my own history, I'd go back twenty-three years, to an otherwise unmemorable November evening when I made an otherwise unmemorable purchase: a container of cottage cheese.
Innocuous as it sounds, this would actually turn out to be a life-altering event, but the kind that's so seemingly ordinary you can't consider it as such for many years. Certainly, I didn't see anything remarkable happening at the time. I was nineteen years old, a junior at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, vaguely anxious, vaguely depressed. I was also, less vaguely, hungry. This was 1979, Thanksgiving weekend. I'd gone home to see my family, then returned to campus the next day to write a paper. My roommates and most of my friends were still away, I didn't especially feel like slogging over to the campus cafeteria to eat by myself, and so I put on my coat and walked up the block to a corner grocery store, and that's what I bought: a small plastic tub of Hood's cottage cheese and a solitary package of rice cakes.
Cottage cheese, of course, is the food God developed specifically to torture women, to make them keen with yearning. Picture it on a plate, lumpy and bland atop a limp lettuce leaf and half a canned peach. Consider the taste and feel of it: wet, bitter little curds. Now compare it to the real thing: a thick, oozing slab of brie, or a dense and silky smear of cream cheese. Cottage cheese is one of our culture's most visible symbols of self-denial; marketed honestly, it would appear in dairy cases with warning labels: this substance is self-punitive; ingest with caution.
I didn't know this back then, which is important to note. Naturally thin, I'd never given my weight much thought before, and although I knew plenty of women who obsessed about their thighs and fretted over calories, I'd always regarded them as a rather alien species, their battles against fat usually unnecessary and invariably tedious, barely a blip on my own radar. I, in turn, had very little personal experience with cottage cheese. I'd never bought cottage cheese before, I'm not sure I'd even eaten cottage cheese before, but on some semiconscious level, I knew the essential truth about cottage cheese -- it was a diet food -- and on some even less conscious level, I was drawn to it, compelled to buy it and to put it in the mini-refrigerator in my dorm room and then to eat it and nothing else -- just cottage cheese and rice cakes -- for three consecutive days.
And a seed, long present perhaps but dormant until then, began to blossom. A path was laid, one that ultimately had less to do with food than it did with emotion, less to do with hunger than it did with the mindset required to satisfy hunger: the sense of entitlement and agency and initiative that leads one to say, first, I want, and then, more critically, I deserve. So as inconsequential as that purchase may have seemed, it in fact represented a turning point, the passage of a woman at a crossroads, one road marked Empty, the other Full. Not believing at the core that fullness -- satiety, gratification, pleasure -- was within my grasp, I chose the other road.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
One of the lingering cultural myths about gender is that women are bad at math -- they lack the confidence for it, they have poor visual-spatial skills, they simply don't excel at numbers the way boys do. This theory has been widely challenged over the years, and there's scant evidence to suggest that girls are in any way neurologically ill-equipped to deal with algebra or calculus. But I'd challenge the myth on different grounds: Women are actually superb at math; they just happen to engage in their own variety of it, an intricate personal math in which desires are split off from one another, weighed, balance, traded, assessed. These are the mathematics of desire, a system of self-limitation and monitoring based on the fundamental premise that appetites are at best risky, at worst impermissible, that indulgence must be bought and paid for. Hence the rules and caveats: Before you open the lunch menu or order that cheeseburger or consider eating the cake with the frosting intact, haul out the psychic calculator and start tinkering with the budget.
Why shouldn't you? I asked a woman that question not long ago while she was demurring about whether to order dessert at a restaurant.
Immediate answer: "Because I'll feel gross."
"Because I'll feel fat."
And what would happen if you felt fat?
"I hate myself when I feel fat. I feel ugly and out of control. I feel really un-sexy. I feel unlovable."
And if you deny yourself the dessert?
"I may feel a little deprived, but I'll also feel pious," she said.
So it's worth the cost?
These are big trade-offs for a simple piece of cake -- add five hundred calories, subtract well-being, allure, and self-esteem -- and the feelings behind them are anything but vain or shallow. Hidden within that thirty-second exchange is an entire set of mathematical principles, equations that can dictate a woman's most fundamental approach to hunger. Mastery over the body -- its impulses, its needs, its size -- is paramount; to lose control is to risk beauty, and to risk beauty is to risk desirability, and to risk desirability is to risk entitlement to sexuality and love and self-esteem. Desires collide, the wish to eat bumping up against the wish to be thin, the desire to indulge conflicting with the injunction to restrain. Small wonder food makes a woman nervous. The experience of appetite in this equation is an experience of anxiety, a burden and a risk; yielding to hunger may be permissible under certain conditions, but mostly it's something to be Earned or Monitored and Controlled. e = mc2.
During the acute phases of my starving years, I took a perverse kind of pleasure in these exhibitions of personal calculus, the anxious little jigs that women would do around food. Every day at lunchtime, I'd stand in line at a cafe in downtown Providence clutching my 200-calorie yogurt, and while I waited, I'd watch the other women deliberate. I'd see a woman mince edgily around the glass case that held muffins and cookies, and I'd recognize the look in her eye, the longing for something sweet or gooey, the sudden flicker of No. I'd overhear fragments of conversation: debates between women (I can't eat that, I'll feel huge), and cajolings (Oh, c'mon, have the fries), and collaborations in surrender (I will if you will). I listened for these, I paid attention, and I always felt a little stab of superiority when someone yielded (Okay, fuck it, fries, onion rings, PIE). I would not yield -- to do so, I understood, would imply lack of restraint, an unseemly, indulgent female greed -- and in my stern resistance I got to feel coolly superior while they felt, or so it seemed to me, anxious.
But I knew that anxiety. I know it still, and I know how stubbornly pressing it can feel, the niggling worry about food and calories and size and heft cutting to the quick somehow, as though to fully surrender to hunger might lead to mayhem, the appetite proven unstoppable. If you plotted my food intake on a graph from that initial cottage cheese purchase onward, you wouldn't see anything very dramatic at first: a slight decline in consumption over my junior and senior years, and an increasing though not yet excessive pattern of rigidity, that edgy whir about food and weight at only the edges of consciousness at first. I lived off campus my senior year with a boyfriend, studied enormously hard, ate normal dinners at home with him, but permitted myself only a single plain donut in the morning, coffee all day, not a calorie more. The concept of "permission" was new to me -- it heralded the introduction of rules and by-laws, a nascent internal tyrant issuing commands -- but I didn't question it. I just ate the donut, drank the coffee, obeyed the rules, aware on some level that the rigidity and restraint served a purpose, reinforced those first heady feelings of will and determination, a proud sensation that I was somehow beyond ordinary need. I wrote a prize-winning honors thesis on two hundred calories a day. The following year, my first out of college, the line on the graph would begin to waver, slowly at first, then peaking and dipping more erratically: five pounds up, five pounds down, six hundred calories here, six thousand there, the dieting female's private NASDAQ, a personal index of self-torture.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Who has the best features? This was a little game, conducted several times and always with the same results, in seventh grade, the time when so many of life's little horrors begin. A very pretty and popular girl named Jill, a leader of the in-crowd, organized the event during recess, gathering seven or eight of us around her on the steps by the school's entrance and beginning the scrutiny. My friend Jen always got best skin, rosy and smooth. My friend Nina got best hair, thick and blond. Jill gave herself best eyes, I think, but I may just be guessing (she did have beautiful eyes, large and dark and framed with the most naturally thick lashes). Me, I got prettiest hands, which felt bitterly disappointing at the time. Hands? Hands didn't matter. Who cared about hands?
If you could change any one thing about your looks, what would it be? We played this, too, frequently: Oh, I'd have Jen's skin, we'd say. I'd have Nina's hair, I'd get rid of these freckles. Once, I mentioned something about wanting curly hair instead of straight hair, and a girl looked at me and said, "If I were you, I'd get rid of those little nostril veins." I didn't even know I had little nostril veins, but as soon as I got home from school that day, I looked in the mirror and sure enough, there they were: several tiny distinct red squiggles, horrifyingly visible, creeping down the skin from inside my nose to the base of each nostril.
These were early exercises in gaze-training, a way of coaxing the eye outward instead of inward, of learning to experience the body as a thing outside the self, something a woman has rather than something she is. From seventh grade on, we would hone this skill, breaking the body down into increasingly scrutinized parts, learning to see legs and arms, belly and breasts, hips and hair as separate entities, most of which generated some degree of distress, all of which were cast in hierarchical and comparative terms, viewed in relation to others: my hair versus Nina's hair, my eyes versus Jill's eyes; this needs fixing, that needs hiding. Pore by pore, we learned to take ourselves apart.
There's no question that this way of thinking is reinforced in the world beyond seventh-grade school yards, that the art of self-dissection receives constant visual support, that it's part of consumer culture's lifeblood. Thick auburn tresses cascade across a magazine page, shiny and rich with Pantene shampoo. An enormous Maybellined eye stares out from a TV screen, each lash glossy and distinct. A calf stretches across a billboard, lean and taut in an $800 Jimmy Choo pump. American companies spend more than $200 billion each year hacking women's bodies into bits and pieces, urging comparisons between self and other, linking value to air-brushed ideals, and as the girls in my seventh-grade class graduated to high school and beyond, the imagery around us would only grow more specific, more pummeling, more insidious. Models would become more thoroughly eroticized, presented in more states of obvious arousal, with more full-out nudity and more undertones of violence; the ideals they presented would become more specific and out of reach, with more and more body parts exposed and subject to critique (butt, arms, hips, and abs as well as the traditional breasts and legs) and ever more Byzantine configurations of beauty presented (bodies with no fat but huge breasts; delicate bodies with muscular limbs; fifty-year-old bodies that still look twenty-five).
Even more dramatic would be a shift in the pitch of imagery, the level and nature of the bombardment. Around the time I began starving, in the early eighties, the visual image had begun to supplant text as culture's primary mode of communication, a radical change because images work so differently than words: They're immediate, they hit you at levels way beneath intellect, they come fast and furious. When televisions first appeared in the 1950s, the image on the screen used to change every twelve to fifteen seconds. By the eighties, the speed of change had increased to about seven seconds. Today, the image on the average TV commercial can change as quickly as once every 1.5 seconds, an assaulting speed, one that's impossible to thoroughly process or integrate. When images strike you at that rate, there's no time to register the split-second reactions they generate, no time to analyze them or put them in their proper place; they get wedged inside, insidious little kernels that come to feel like truth.