Journalist and author Harriet Brown lived through what no parent of a teenage girl ever would hope to experience.
Brown’s 14-year-old daughter, Kitty, had an ongoing battle with anorexia that nearly destroyed her life.
The ordeal is chronicled in Brown’s book, Brave Girl Eating: A Family Struggle with Anorexia. The book describes the Browns' experience with a family-based treatment known as the Mosley approach in a gripping narration of a year in their lives as they help Kitty recover from near starvation. The book stemmed from an article in the New York Times Magazine.
Brown recently spoke to students and faculty at Sarah Lawrence College about her family’s experience.
“I called the book Brave Girl Eating because I also want to emphasize the fact that people who have eating disorders are by definition very brave. They have to be because they go through such intense fear and anxiety all the time,” Brown told the students and faculty.
Brown’s lecture consisted of passages read from the book along with Brown’s experience narrated in a frank and honest manner. She asked the audience members to close their eyes as she read a passage describing one of the best bakeries in Paris and the way hunger takes over a person who is anorexic, including the self-deprecating interior monologue.
“I read that at the beginning of the evening because this is going to be a conversation about particularly our daughter and how she recovered from anorexia, but there are a few things I really want you to know about eating disorders,” Brown said. “The first one is, that it’s not a choice. People don’t choose to have anorexia and you can’t un-choose it either.”
“In watching my daughter go through this, that was something that became very clear to me, and I think that it is one of the most misunderstood ailments around.”
Brown’s daughter was 14 years old when she was diagnosed. Brown describes Kitty going through periods of anxiety.
“It very quickly became apparent that she wasn’t eating very much and that she was dealing with anorexia,” she said.
She then recalls what she thinks of as a series of “many crazy experiences,” as they started Kitty on the road to recovery.
“The strange thing about eating disorders is that they affect every around the person that has them. They seem to bring out some very strange elements in people,” Brown said.
Brown ultimately found a way to help her daughter recover. She found a treatment commonly used at the time in the United Kingdom, known as the Maudsley approach, from the Maudsley Hospital in London.
The approach was devised by a couple of family therapists who observed nurses on an in-patient ward with patients who had anorexia. They found that when the nurses gave the patients support they could get the patients to eat. However, when the same patient went home they had stopped eating. The creator then applied the concept to children, trying to find a way for a family to do the same thing that the nurses in the ward were doing.
“The more I read about this, the more appealing it seemed to me and my husband. This was something that we could do and so we decided to give it a try. We didn’t have access to a trained therapist so we kind of had to make it up as we went along,” Brown said.
She said there were emotional mealtimes with Kitty that could last as long as an hour. There were also more relaxed moments, such as when the two joked about high-calorie foods in the house. Over the next year, Kitty grew four inches and gained 45 pounds.
“I would say that it was the hardest year of our lives,” Brown said.
Brown said she had the full support of her daughter to write the book.
“She was on the fence about it, what motivated her to say ‘yes’ was that she wanted to help other families.”
The book was released in 2010, when Kitty was in college. Though Kitty gave her mother permission to write the book, she was initially angry when it first was published, but “then she started asking me to send her copies to give to her friends so that they would understand, which I took as the highest compliment because she said, ‘You kind of got it, Mom.”