johnlee's picture
johnlee August 9, 2015 - 7:09am

For the most part my writing is received in much the same way as a medium steak at a restaurant. No one screams about the controversy of eating animals, but no one jumps up and hugs the waiter either.

I write to tell stories, good or bad. I don't consider the stories my opinion.

I received no major negative critique until about ten years ago when I wrote My Secret Family - a book about the challenge teenagers face when afflicted with eating disorders. The book was a college project that I completed over a summer and reflected some of the lives I had observed on campus and at school. Some friends, others just passers-by.
I was studying Journalism at the time but wanted to be a serious author - writing about people around me seemed perfect practice.
My Secret Family was heavily researched and based on the lives of real people, but I had no idea that it would spark a minor controversy at the college when it was publish through the college press. Some people got the irony of the story. Many did not.


It's perfectly fine to write about murder, genocide, or whatever human catastrophe one can think of, but write a story about teenagers competing against each other with an eating disorder and suddenly people get their hackles up.
I have heard every argument about how this topic is off limits, how it is sacred, how it can not be used for frivolous entertainment, how I, as a writer, have no right to write about something as close and personal as a real medical disorder suffered by a pretty girl. That it should remain a secret.

And that's just it.
To a girl having an eating disorder is almost fashionable - if it gets the right attention. As a species we are driven from birth towards a blossoming adolescence filled with a loving community - where those around us help define who we are. When things in our lives go wrong we sometimes regress to before that state. We diet, we become immature, we avoid responsibilities, we try to go back. I think it's a built-in mechanism we have for self-realization.

Eating disorders get attention.

My Secret Family is, on the face of it, about a girl with an eating disorder. As a typical college student Sophie is influenced by a trusted friend, Ana (a sort of personification of Anorexia). Ana's friends are taking Ana's dieting advice and Sophie takes it too - their lives seem so together so why not copy their behavior?
It starts with dieting, but soon spirals into a full-blown body dysmorphia where Sophie sees herself as obese even though the reality is very different. This is fueled by Ana's emotional manipulation of Sophie, Mia (Ana's bulimic best friend), and Sue, a tragically thin girl who lives in her own world on the brink of suicide.
A new catalyst appears who wants to show Sophie that she has a dangerous disorder, which Sophie denies, and so they embark on a type of anorexia competition to see who can lose the most weight.

I occasionally get hate mail only about My Secret Family, which is a good thing, I guess, because it means my other books can live peacefully in their paddocks.
At first I was upset by the vibrancy of the commentary and rejected the hate mail as ignorant baying. After the emails and messages kept coming in I realized that the hate was not directed at me or the book, no one was criticizing the writing or the obvious plot holes, but rather the situation itself.

I had struck a nerve.

The people who were sending me hate mail were the very people I had been writing about. They had fallen victim to the same addiction cycle of eat/diet/acceptance. They wanted it to remain a secret, to stay underground where it was cool and edgy, or perhaps just where they could own it.
Being underground and secret was a big part of the disorder, but now that people are more aware of the culture of Ana there has been change. Search for #Ana and you will now find a stream of consciousness that is both for and against Anorexia. People who want to signal others with the same spectrum of disorders use the tag #mysecretfamily. It has become a type of secret handshake, an acknowledgement of the disorder.

I found that the best was to deal with the criticism was not to ignore it as people suggested, but to face it head on and explain my thinking. This helped, mostly, not only to convince the critics but also to distill my thoughts about the subject matter. That is, after all, what being a writer is about, convincing someone that your ideas are worth reading, even ideas they don't agree with.
Some people are beyond an explanation, they want to hate and they have their reasons. I try not to fuel their animosity by asserting my opinion too heavily, but rather just acknowledge their argument without offering a solution. Some people just want to be seen.

I still get the occasional rant about My Secret Family. But I also get positive mail about it, which does inspire me greatly. For those who get it, I love you. For those who don't, I love you too.

Thanks for reading,

#MySecretFamily #Ana #Mia #Debbie #Sue #Sophie #Max

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