Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A review of Elena Vanishing: A Memoir

So, sometime recently I purchased a couple of books about eating disorders.  I generally like to read memoirs, so Elena Dunkle's book, Elena Vanishing: A Memoir, was one of the books I downloaded.  Elena Dunkle co-wrote this book with her mother, Clare B. Dunkle, who is an established author.  It was published in 2015.

I didn't know this when I started reading, but I have some things in common with Elena Dunkle.  For one thing, she spent several years living in Germany.  Her father works for Ramstein Air Force Base (I gathered, anyway).  The book opens with her as a seventeen year old at a hospital.  She doesn't mention it specifically, but she's apparently at Landstuhl.  The psychiatrist there is described as a bit of a putz as he threatens to send her back to the United States, where she'll be stuck in a hospital with a tube forced up her nose.  Later, she describes being sent back to the States in what sounds like a military transport plane.  Having been on a few hops myself, I have to admit enjoying the read about those military planes because I could picture it well.  I had no idea they sent civilians back in them for medical purposes, though.

Elena Dunkle's parents own a home in San Antonio, Texas, which is where Bill and I lived before we moved back to Germany.  Her parents temporarily move back to Texas while Elena gets treatment.  Elena has big dreams of being a nurse and manages to go to college.  But though she gets a job as a resident assistant, she makes the unfortunate mistake of mentioning her eating disorder.  That revelation leads to negative consequences, which don't help her situation.  College life is stressful for Elena.  Her eating disorder is exacerbated by some traumatic events... events that would trouble anyone.

Elena Vanishing is the true story of Elena Dunkle's five year struggle with anorexia nervosa.  It's a stark accounting of what it was like to be treated for an eating disorder nowadays.  It also offers an insight into the character of a person with anorexia nervosa.  I read one comment on Amazon.com in which a reader criticized Elena for "not being likable."  I felt the need to respond to that comment because I felt Elena's less likable and less trusting nature offered very good insight into the experience of having an eating disorder.

Although many people who struggle with anorexia are "people pleasers", the illness itself manifests with manipulative, secretive, dishonest, and ultimately unpleasant behavior.  Having an eating disorder is not wholly unlike having any disorder involving addiction to a substance or a behavior.  Part of the disease means being untrustworthy.  None of these elements of a person's character are usually regarded as pleasing or likable.  But that's what having an eating disorder ultimately leads to; a person who isn't sweet, loving, and pleasant.  They resist treatment and become very recalcitrant.  The disorder causes them to fight against those who are trying to help them.

In 2007, the British soap opera Hollyoaks had a very good storyline about anorexia nervosa.  The actresses portraying the characters Hannah and Melissa demonstrate how nasty and sneaky an eating disorder can make someone become.  Skip to 2:29 to see how Melissa and Hannah affect a simple backyard party.

Overall, I thought Elena Vanishing was a well written and interesting memoir.  If I had to offer a criticism, I would say that this book ends rather abruptly.  I was surprised when I got to the end.  However, I have read a lot of books about eating disorders and found it to be a very good read, as well as an accurate portrayal of one person's experience with anorexia nervosa.  I was particularly interested because I have myself shared some similar experiences to Elena's, though thankfully, I have never suffered from an eating disorder that ever landed me in a hospital.

This book is recommended for readers from the ninth grade up.  I think that's an appropriate age for reading this book.  I also liked that it didn't seem to be very triggering.  There's nothing about specific weights or sizes that would serve as "thinsperation" for eating disordered readers.  There's also little about specific behaviors that could be triggering for sensitive readers.  By contrast, the 1978 book The Best Little Girl In The World" by noted eating disorder therapist Steven Levenkron, is said to be very triggering (and I will confess that when I read it as a teenager, I was pretty obsessed with it myself).  

Anyway, I liked Elena Vanishing and I think I'd give it a hearty four stars.


  1. I'm sort of off eating disorder books for the moment because I see them as an insight into how people think I am. It's in egoistic way of looking at a subject, for me it's the way it is. There has to be something more compelling than the eating disorder itself in the book to make it readable to me. A book from a gymnast, skater, or jockey with the disorder I could possibly get into. With a jockey, the disorder usually wouldn't be anorexia per se, as it's more about maintaining the weight one must in order to do the job and not so much a body image issue, but bingeing and purging is supposedly prevalent. I like that you said the book isn't very triggering. too many are.

    My family still is not communicating with me.

    1. I don't find ED books nearly as interesting as I used to. Mr. Bill would freak if I developed anything even resembling an ED. Not that I would at this point. I think those days are behind me.


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