Is Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson's young adult novel about anorexia and bulimia, a dangerous trigger for eating-disordered readers, a thoughtful examination of a terrible disease, or both? We read it to find out. [Spoilers follow.]
Much of the book could certainly trigger a vulnerable reader. It tells the story of Lia, who spirals into anorexia and cutting after the death of her best friend Cassie, who was bulimic. Like many anorexics, Lia knows how many calories are in everything she eats, and her descriptions of her meals ("I eat ten raisins (16) and five almonds (35) and a green-bellied pear (121) (= 172)") could certainly serve as instruction and motivation for disordered eating. So could her reports of her steadily dropping weight and ever-lower goal, the pro-ana websites she visits (though, thankfully, Anderson doesn't include actual web addresses), and the tricks she uses to make her family think she's eating. Most disturbing, though, is the way Lia thinks about her illness and her recovery. Anderson writes,
[The doctors] are morons. This body has a different metabolism. This body hates dragging around the chains they wrapped around it. Proof? At 099.00 I think clearer, look better, feel stronger. When I reach the next goal, it will be all that, and more.
Goal number two is 095.00, the perfect point of balance. At 095.00, I will be pure. Light enough to walk with my head up, meaty enough to fool everyone. And 095.00, I will have the strength to stay in control.
At 090.00, I will soar. That's Goal Number Three.
To the non-sufferer, this thinking is distorted and scary, but to anyone with a tendency toward anorexia, it may sound all too reasonable. Lia's thoughts about herself may be far more triggering than her calorie-counting or meal-avoiding strategies — they may convince girls that their own disordered thoughts are normal or even correct.
Some have argued that the book's triggering qualities are mitigated by how terrifying its portrayal of anorexia and bulimia is. Jack Martin of the New York Public Library told the Times, "It's so horrific I don't think anybody would pick this book up and consider it a manual." It's true that the manner of Cassie's death — a ruptured esophagus caused by her bulimia — is incredibly disturbing, and that the deeper Lia descends into anorexia and cutting the more she feels self-loathing rather than strength. But a Times commenter says, "it doesn't matter if you describe the 'horrors.' i'll read right past it and go for what i want," and this may be true for many sufferers.
The real reason Wintergirls is a worthwhile book isn't that it will scare people away from eating disorders — it might do the opposite. It's that Anderson offers insight into a difficult subject, one that is much-discussed but frequently misunderstood. Especially strong is her treatment of Lia's family. While at first it's tempting to think that Lia's parents' divorce "caused" her eating disorder, the book ultimately resists such easy conclusions. Lia's mother, father, stepmother, and stepsister all come across as complex characters who influence Lia for both good and bad, and whose relationships with Lia will all be important as she begins her recovery. Anderson renders anorexia as a complicated disease with many interrelated causes, but she also emphasizes the importance of family in Lia's treatment — both these messages are worth sharing.
Cynthia M. Bulik, director of an eating disorder program, may have the best take on the book. She told the Times, "Books such as these should be read with careful parental supervision. In the best of all possible worlds, this could be a conversation starter between parents and teens rather than a dark world that teens enter alone reading the book in isolation." Read without discussion or supervision, Wintergirls could indeed be triggering. But read as part of a conversation — or, perhaps, read by parents and other family members — the book could help make some teens' worlds a little less dark.
Earlier: Are Teen Girls Really That Fragile?