Opening doors on a private drama

They are two very different women, but they share painful personal experience of eating disorders. Between them they provide as comprehensive and provocative an insight into the subject as you are likely to get, says Angela Neustatter.

All the statistics told Peggy Claude-Pierre that her daughter Nikki, skeletal and suicidal, would be lucky to live another three days. It was at this point that she wondered whether she had the physical stamina to cope: "I think it is lucky I didn't live in the US, where I could have got a handgun."

She had already lived through a year of her eldest daughter Kirsten's life-threatening anorexia, had managed with 24-hour caring and a constant countering of the negative feelings, self-loathing of her body and herself that Kirsten had voiced, to bring her back to health and rationality. Three months later she realised that Nicole, in her mid-teens, was showing signs of an eating disorder. "I began having an unhealthy fear about her," says Claude-Pierre. "I knew intuitively, although I tried to deny it. And Nikki's illness was a nightmare, many times worse than Kirsten's had been."

She sits now at a table overlooking the rooftops of London, recalling the nights she sat on the bathroom floor beside her daughter Nikki's bedroom, willing the icy cold of the stone to keep her awake because she feared that if she slept and left her daughter alone, "her life could slip away". During the day she drove Nikki around as a distraction, stopping regularly at restaurants to say she was hungry, then putting scraps of food from her plate on to the table in the hope that Nikki might take them. There was the evening they scoured town for a banana because Nikki decided this was what she wanted, but she would only accept an overripe one, where just a fraction of the fruit was edible.

Claude-Pierre acknowledges: "I was held an emotional hostage", but something in her "knew" that the only way to get her daughter through was with unconditional approval and love. "At the same time, to do this I had to detach myself emotionally, because she would sometimes spit hate and vitriol at me." She stayed with Nicole 24 hours a day, chatting to her by day, sitting by her bed at night recalling happy memories - anything to prevent the negative thoughts that she believes drive those with eating disorders ever farther and farther into their private despair.

And it is history now. After 18 months Nikki was cured, and what Claude- Pierre learnt convinced her that much of what is commonly presumed about eating disorders is mistaken or superficial. She dismisses the idea that the ending of her marriage, shortly before her daughters' illnesses, was a cause. She does not believe coercive treatments and rigid regimes work, and her conviction led to the setting up of the Montreux Clinic in Canada. This now famous place, which has treated hundreds of people with eating disorders, is also the subject of Claude-Pierre's new book.

Predictably, there have been sceptically raised eyebrows at her relentless rebuttal of medical theories. Claude-Pierre's soft, coaxing voice does not fully disguise a steely, driven quality, the thing you imagine made it possible for her to stay sane through two-and-a-half years of her children's living death. She says that in four years of monitoring patients who complete the treatment, there has not been one relapse. But she will not give figures, and slides quickly on to other matters.

The single hardest thing, Claude-Pierre acknowledges, was the "mystery" of what went on inside the head of an anorexic - and that is precisely what Marya Hornbacher brings us in her book Wasted, the extraordinary diary of a 23-year-old bulimic who gives us in intimate, infinite detail the growth of self-loathing and alienation, how her parents used her as a football in their dreadful marriage, and the process of starvation and sickness. Hornbacher provides the missing link in Claude-Pierre's work, an insight, in prose as harshly illuminating as neon, of how easily it all begins: "One minute I was your average nine-year-old in shorts and a T-shirt munching on a bag of Fritos. Stuffed full, I went to the bathroom and made myself vomit. When I returned everything was calm and I felt very clean."

There followed "15 years of bingeing, barfing, starving, needles and tubes and terror and rage, and medical crises and personal failure." Yet, although it is this very negativism for which Claude-Pierre believes she has a panacea, you wonder whether Hornbacher, whose book is underscored with a dogged, infantile cry of "won't ... can't ..." would be too great a challenge. For it is this obduracy, willingness to die rather than be treated, that makes the medical profession say cure is impossible; at best you can manage the illness. Hornbacher pins the dilemma neatly when she says: "Dying is exciting. Eating disorders provide a private drama."

But Hornbacher is no longer starving herself to death, although she absolutely refutes the idea of cure: "I do not have a happy ending ... I cannot end it with assurances of my own Triumph over Adversity."

And although Hornbacher is closer than Claude-Pierre to the cynics who are unconvinced by the idea of a softly-softly, love and comfort cure, the two women have converged in that Kirsten and Nicole are cured and, 10 years on, are working at their mother's clinic. And Hornbacher, now 23, is at least healthy and distanced enough to have written her life story.

`The Secret Language of Eating Disorders' (Doubleday, pounds 16.99).

`Wasted' will be published by HarperCollins on 6 April, at pounds 12.99.

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