One night when he was 21, Ron Saxen zapped a whole jar of Hershey's hot fudge sauce in the microwave and emptied it onto a half-gallon of Häagen Dazs ice cream: "Which left only my half-pound bag of plain M&Ms and my half-pound bag of peanut M&Ms; I poured them both on top." His roommate was away. He had the whole apartment to himself. Saxen ate every drop, though he took a break halfway through to consume a bowl of cereal with milk.
After the sundae he ate four Snickers bars and two Reese's Peanut Butter Cups: a chaser, he called them. Not quite. "McDonald's," he told himself, scrambling for his keys, "is open until 11:30. Why not add in a couple of Big Macs ... and a cherry pie?"
Saxen's weight had shot up recently to 260. He'd been a binge eater since the afternoon a few years before when he ate a dozen eggs with melted cheese and "an additional half-bottle of Thousand Island dressing" while watching Gilligan's Island. Now, attending Sacramento State and working in a restaurant, depressed, he slathered Desitin between his thighs to soothe the chafing. A few days before, he had bought fifteen fruit pies at Safeway and, rather than take them home, chose instead to "ride around the neighborhood in my blue polyester uniform pedaling my bike with no hands as I ate my pies."
"Once I've started," he confesses in his memoir The Good Eater ($24.95), "I can't stop." New from Oakland's New Harbinger Publications, it's a scathing, Hostess Sno Balls-out account of how he "jumped from fatso to model." And back. And kept flailing.
Because soon after the sundae incident, Saxen was running several miles daily on a mostly-black-coffee diet. Plunging to 179 pounds, he launched a modeling career, clenching his brand-new square jaw on TV, squinting sexily on runways and at photo shoots.
A few years later, he was back up to 271, assistant-managing a retail store where one day a guy called him a "fat-ass-ten-sandwich-eating motherfucker." It stung. The ten-sandwich part was true.
Deficit. Overdose. We read endlessly about binges. Purges. All kinds of extremes. It is as if something has knocked all of our gauges out of whack, pried loose those little red prongs that once meant Full. Switched off the beeps that meant Enough. We think only in alls or nothings.
Mass destruction. Overnight success.
This is the era when "pro-ana" Web sites proffer tips and skinny-Nicole pix for anorexics. "Pro-mia" sites endorse bulimia as a "right" and a lifestyle choice. ("Rice is the worst food to purge," someone notes on a pro-mia site. "It always comes out my nose.")
Would books about being ordinary even sell?
Aimee Liu was modeling with the prestigious Wilhelmina agency at fifteen, but dieted so much that she became too thin even for that. Her main thrust in Gaining (Warner, $24.99) is that eating disorders are more nature than nurture. While most writings on this topic peg middle-class whiteness and cold harpyish moms as prime causes, Liu assembles a panoply of researchers who contend that eating disorders tend to afflict high-anxiety desperate-to-please compulsive perfectionists with serotonin imbalances, dopamine-receptivity abnormalities, and control issues: "Power scares me," one twentysomething interviewee admits. "What if I did something wrong?"
At this point in history you might argue that we've seen too many bulimarexia books and know the drill. Liu should agree with you. She's written two. In Gaining she disses her best-selling 1980 memoir, Solitaire, because in it "I pretended not only that I understood why" she spent her years at Yale eating little more than oranges, "but also that I was cured." As her anorexia book became a best-seller, she became bulimic.
"My 'recovery,'" she writes, "set off a whole new wave of self-abuse."
Which included ralphing. Alcohol. One-night stands. Then, during her marriage, affairs. All heads of the same hydra, as she sees it now. Pick a compulsion, any compulsion. The fact that compulsiveness runs in families suggests to Liu that some folks are hardwired this way, and must always watch for warning signs. It might also suggest that cold harpies raise cold harpies. Which came first: the chicken or the egg-white-only omelet?
"If we're not thin, we're fat. If we're not winners, we're losers." Liu spotlights the paradox that drove her for decades to do too little or too much, forever veering over lines she could not see. She remembers wondering: "What did 'normal' even feel like? How did 'normal' think?"
In The Good Eater, Ron Saxen echoes her: "I wouldn't know normal if I saw it. All my life I'd either eaten too much, eaten way too much, or starved myself. For me, gaining or losing ten pounds in a month was no big deal; eating a normal amount of food seemed impossible."
Well, these days "normal" is a nasty word. In academic circles, the adjective "normative" decreeing some things right, popular, proper, better, thus decreeing others wrong or weird or marginal or worse is an epithet. "Fetishism has proliferated as both an aesthetic and as a trajectory of potential subversion of normative categories of subjectivity," writes Australian scholar Kate Livett, whose Ph.D is "in Gertrude Stein and fetishism." "Part One focuses on the absurdity of medieval hetero-normative sexuality," notes Canadian professor Dana Wessell in her review of Queering the Middle Ages.
No wonder we can't help but always second-guess. No wonder we forsake our power to assess. In this topsy-turvy culture, normalcy is boring at best, a tool of oppression at worst. This is why we mistrust the concept of okay.
Well, it makes for hilarious reading, at least. We turn fear-factor memoirists into millionaires, first James Frey with his alleged anesthetic-free root canals and then Augusten Burroughs describing his adoptive family as playing with an electroshock machine and maintaining a Masturbatorium. (In a defamation suit, his adoptive sisters say it was an Electrolux vacuum cleaner and an Institute for the Advancement of Maturation.) Our sympathies rush to the outrageous, the outraged, the out-there outermost. The shelves pile up with autobios by middle-class strippers and hos, from Diablo Cody's Candy Girl (Gotham, $14) to Jeannette Angell's Callgirl (Harper, $13.95). And by criminals, from Bill Mason's Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief (Villard, $14.95) to Mark Borovitz' The Holy Thief (Harper Collins, $13.95).
We have seen the freak show, and we are it.
One night, Ron Saxen ate two double Whoppers with cheese, along with two regular cheeseburgers, a large order of fries, a chocolate shake, and then for dessert a box of doughnuts, a one-pound Hershey bar, and a quart of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. He's better now, because he found love. But still.
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