Sunday, January 15, 2017

A review of Safety in Numbers: From 56 to 221 Pounds, My Battle with Eating Disorders -- A Memoir

I finally managed to finish reading my latest book yesterday, while caving in out of the falling snowflakes.  I bought Brittany Burgunder's 2016 book, Safety in Numbers: From 56 to 221 Pounds, My Battle with Eating Disorders -- A Memoir, in August of last year. It took awhile to start reading it, and once I got started reading it, it took a long while to finish it. I think I was attracted to this book by its rather provocative title and many good reviews on Amazon. Now that I've read it, I'm ready to add my own thoughts.

Brittany Burgunder is a young woman who grew up battling several eating disorders. She spent several years suffering from anorexia nervosa and compulsive exercising. She has suffered from binge eating disorder. She's also experienced bulimia. Burgunder grew up in San Luis Obispo, California in a two parent household. She has a younger sister named Kasey who gets a couple of mentions at the beginning and end of the book. Burgunder's parents are clearly financially well off, or at least they are better off than many people are. Burgunder grew up playing tennis and showing horses. She enjoyed success in her sports. Having spent my adolescence riding horses, I know how expensive being involved in riding can be. Tennis is probably not as expensive as riding is, but it's also not necessarily a sport for the impoverished. I get the sense that Brittany is quite privileged.

At the beginning of the book, Brittany Burgunder is beginning her college career at the University of California, Davis. She is suffering from anorexia nervosa at the time. Her health is very poor and the doctors at the university fear that she's in danger of dying. She eventually gets forced to leave school and go into a treatment program. Most of the book consists of Burgunder's journal entries and experiences in a variety of different eating disorder programs in Arizona, Utah, and California.

The most compelling part of the book is the year during which she went from weighing 56 pounds as an anorexic to 221 pounds as a binge eater. She gained 165 pounds in the course of just one year. The idea of that is unfathomable, but there are pictures and the physical transformation is incredible. Throughout all of her experiences, "ED", the eating disorder, is in charge.  ED is pretty much the same voice in Brittany's head, even though the disorder manifests in different ways.

One thing I did not like about Burgunder's book is that it mostly consists of journal entries, many of which are very similar. I think this book would have been a lot better if it had gotten a couple of passes with an editor. It probably could have been slimmed down by 50-100 pages, which would have made it easier to digest. I understand that this is Brittany Burgunder's story and she probably felt it was important to include everything. From my perspective, the continual journal entries made for dull and repetitive reading. I think I would have gotten more out of this book had Burgunder simply written her story and included some of the more important journal entries. She probably could have determined which ones were most important with the help of an impartial editor.

There are some insightful passages in Safety in Numbers.  For instance, at one point, Burgunder lists what she misses about "being sick".  Her list struck me as very honest and I think she was brave to share it.  She confesses that she misses the attention she got from others when she was sick.  She enjoyed shocking her doctors and worrying her parents.  She liked wearing extra small clothes.  I also think her descriptions of what eating disorder treatment centers are like are interesting.  

On the other hand, at one point Burgunder writes that "recovery is selfish".  While I think I understand what she means when she writes that-- one must focus on themselves in order to recover-- I disagree that recovery is selfish.  Constantly wanting attention and getting it by deliberately engaging in eating disordered behavior is selfish.  Worrying your parents and shocking your doctors is selfish.  Getting well is not selfish.  It's difficult and brave, but it means you can get on with your life and so can your loved ones, who no doubt have their own life issues to worry about.  I also think Burgunder comes across as a bit conceited at times.  She often writes about how gifted at riding and tennis she was and how she'd thrown it away by having an eating disorder.  

People develop eating disorders for a variety of reasons, but it's not quite like developing cancer.  Ultimately, the power to get well from an eating disorder resides with the person who is suffering from it.  That doesn't mean that a person with anorexia can simply decide to eat normally, nor does it mean that a person with an eating disorder won't have physical problems that will require recovery.  What it does mean is that he or she must decide that recovery is doable and worthwhile.  In that sense, it's not unlike when Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz learns that she always has the power to go home.

Anyway... while many Amazon reviewers gave this book five stars and pronounced it "powerful", I was less impressed with it.  I do think it could have been a better book if it had been pared down a bit.  Readers struggling with eating disorders of their own may want to proceed with caution.  Parts of this book may be triggering.  I think I'd give Safety In Numbers three out of five stars.




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