Divulging Secrets

Eating Disorderby Patrick O’Neil

There is a scene in Jerry Stahl’s memoir Permanent Midnight, where he is out in the middle of the night scoring drugs in some decrepit Los Angeles Pico-Union shooting gallery. But unlike similar passages in the book this time he has his 6-month old daughter with him, and he’s holding her in his arms while waiting for someone to sell him dope, and a toothless crackhead, covered in weeping open sores, asks if she can hold his baby. Stahl is not only repulsed, but he’s also scared, seeing himself in this emaciated crackhead, or actually he’s seeing his future, what he can or will become, if he continues using drugs the way that he is. And when he doesn’t allow the woman to hold his child she yells at him, “least I don’t bring no kid here. Least I don’t drag no baby girl into this.” And then Stahl writes: “I don’t know if I could have stood another minute standing in front of the mirror that talking corpse on the floor represented. But she wasn’t really my reflection. She was better. She wouldn’t bring her baby down into this. And though I stayed frozen, and didn’t say a word, we both knew it. You are worse then me! That was the message flickering from those tombstone eyes.”

This is perhaps one of the most powerful scenes I have ever read in any drug addict memoir. It truly represents a horrific moment in Stahl’s life that he could have probably gotten away without ever having told a soul. And the question is why would he ever tell this to anyone, let alone publish it in a best selling memoir? Is it some narcissistic need to tell all, an incessant desire for attention, or a not so silent scream for help? I mean really, aren’t some subjects better left alone, untouched in the dark, to fester away? What drives Stahl to display such vulnerability?

And then you have an author like Jeannette Walls in her memoir The Glass Castle who writes an opening like this: “I was sitting in the taxi, wondering if I was overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blistery March wind whipped the steam coming out of manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading. Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a black-and-white terrier mix, played at her feet.”

Walls’ memoir is about growing up with her totally insane parents who eventually become homeless. But not before dragging Walls and her siblings through numerous episodes of their mental health and personality disorders, while traipsing around the United States in a series of horrible living situations, and even worse locales. It is a childhood one wouldn’t wish on anyone and that Walls survived to tell the tale is nothing short of amazing. But here we are again bordering on the “too much information” of over disclosure. What drove Walls to write this book? Wasn’t she embarrassed? Wasn’t she afraid what people would think of her once they knew where she had come from? And besides, is it really fair to write about family and friends? Isn’t everything that happened between them private?

A good memoir mines emotions. It digs deep and exposes all the little crevasses of hidden secrets and awkward and uncomfortable events from the writer’s life that a “normal” person would not want other people to know. If done right it gives the reader a full perspective of the author and a further understanding of how and why they came to be in the situations that they have. Yet that is the reader’s perspective, and if we were to turn this around and ask just what does the author gain from this type of exposure, what do you think the answer would be? Is there a benefit to the writer to tell all, other than book sales and a congratulatory slap on the back?

Three years ago my eating disorder returned to my life full force. Although it had not really gone away, it had always been hovering around the perimeter, dancing in when I was depressed or particularly stressed out. Yet it is not something I ever talk about, as my bulimia has always been a secret I have kept it from family and friends and practically everyone that I know for well over forty years. Its origin a deep-seated childhood trauma that I have never addressed, and it evokes a lot of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. And the result is I have such bad body dysmorphia that unless my jeans are a 28” waist, or less, then I know I am so incredibly huge and fat that I am unlovable and ugly. I will not weigh myself. I avoid mirrors. I over exercise. I under eat. And I avoid situations where food is involved. Sadly I have always assumed that my eating disorder would just fade off into oblivion, and that when I’d reach a certain age I would grow out of it, as if it was some cherished t-shirt from when I was a child. But I am in my 50’s and it hasn’t gone away, in fact this last time it came back so strongly I was scared enough to finally do something about it: I wrote a personal essay about my life long struggle with bulimia, then I submitted it to an online magazine, and it was published.

Although I am a writer whose career, such that it is, has been all about divulging past transgressions and not so pleasant secrets—I wrote a memoir chronicling my decline into drug addiction and crime, and have published numerous essays on suffering from depression, childhood trauma, and family dynamics—but none of those subjects ever felt taboo, or too off limits. They were who I was, or who I am, and the personal “payoff” for writing about them was that when I emotionally deal with my past, I come to a better understanding of my part in it. Taking full responsibility for my actions, as well as finding a place of acceptance and forgiveness for the roles others played in those events. Which ultimately affords me the ability to let go of resentments and put to rest all those haunting memories that are distorted by anger and fear. And herein lies one answer as to why authors write the self-divulging material that they do. The cathartic value of writing, whether it is published or not, is unparalleled for self-introspection and acceptance.

Yet, knowing all that it was still very hard to confess that I have an eating disorder, let alone publicly announce it on a website that gets over 2,000 readers a day. But I knew that if I did, there was no going back, and really, when I saw my essay published online there was this incredible sense of relief, and a long held fear was finally over. Since then I have sought out the help that I needed and I am finally in a better place than I have ever been with my bulimia. Now I am not advocating that everyone has to publically admit all their worst secrets. What I am advocating is that everyone should write about them.

Patrick O’Neil’s Course Food is Not the Enemy: The Language of Eating Disorders begins May 31st.

Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books), and the excerpted in part French translation, Hold-Up (13e Note Editions). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including: Juxtapoz,Salon.com, The Weeklings,Razorcake, Sensitive Skin,Fourteen Hills, and Word Riot. Patrick is an editor for the NYC-to-California-transplant-post-beat-pre-apocalyptic art, writing, and music anthologySensitive Skin Magazine. And a two time nominee for Best Of The Net. He is a regular contributor to the recovery website After Party Chat, and has been blogging at Full Blue Moon Dementia for over ten years. Patrick holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, lives in Hollywood, California, and teaches at a local community college. Check out Patrick’s web-site for more information www.patrick-oneil.com and his blog Full Blue Moon Dementiahttp://patrick-oneil.com/blog/


A Flash, a Moment, a Lifetime: the Versatile Form of Flash Prose

Flash Fiction by Kate Maruyama

I hate to admit it openly, but I’m a long-form girl. Through my years of writing screenplays and four novels in, it’s becoming obvious that it’s my go-to form of writing. The ebb and flow of story, the building of characters, the adherence to structure, these are my comfort zones. And, as it’s a form I recognize, editing long form becomes a frenzied, zealous space with crazy cutting, reworking and shuffling the deck. It’s my sandbox.

Which is why I absolutely love flash prose. It pulls me out of my comfort zone. Makes me push boundaries, think about word choice, single word impact. It is like attempting modern dance after a lifetime of tapdancing. It stretches, challenges and sometime downright zings.

Short stories are challenging and have their own ebb and flow; when I work at them, I feel I am digging into a scene, going deeper, but flash prose is another form entirely. Flash prose is under 1500, 1000 or 500 words, depending which definition you consult. And in that space, many forms can happen, and the word Flash applies in a number of ways. Sometimes it is a flash as if a photograph has been taken, a moment suspended in time and space, taken so slowly we can look into it, look at layers of consciousness within the main character, have a moment of clarity. Other times, it is a lifetime which passes by in a flash, dozens of singular moments suspended and interacting in a new and fascinating way. I often describe it as stepping between two mirrors which face each other. Look one way and you see a million yous. Look the other way and you see a million yous. And this is how the brain works.

We are never thinking only one thing. If we see a cat cross the street we can, in one moment, remember a childhood cat, a cat we saw hit by a car, an alley cat we noticed in a seminal moment when someone was breaking up with us, or we got a bit of bad news, a mythical cat from a picture book. All of these come to us and create emotions are just beyond our definition. But as they hit us in life, these moments often feel they are carrying everything.

Flash prose often catches those moments. In Diane Sherlock’s The Green Bench, which is written in second person instructional mode, she creates a moment in a woman’s life, which is reflective of a much larger situation. Within 550 words, she tells a lifetime. I read the piece when it was written and teach it every time I teach flash fiction, because it manages to create a novelistic wow within so few words.

THE GREEN BENCH by Diane Sherlock

Listen to him barking in the night. Fear shifts on the bed next to you, hogging the covers. Stare at the ceiling and wonder what to do. Forget his birthday. Forget he is forty-two. Forget the phone call from Berkeley twenty-one years ago. Forget about the happy little boy with the smooth tan skin and the big green eyes. Those eyes that see things that aren’t there, at least not in this dimension. Forget all the tears. Don’t think about the years you tried to talk him into leaving the garage.

In the morning, exhausted, make his favorite breakfast: honey nut oatmeal, mango juice, a poached egg on an onion bagel, and strawberries. Use only paper plates and bowls with plastic utensils and put it all on a sturdy cardboard tray. Buy them in bulk. Don’t appreciate the color arrangement of orange and red punctuating beige and white. Look at the low bench that you have placed outside the door to the garage, the one with a fresh coat of forest green that you made look new again because at least that was possible. That is the mark you will hit. It is twenty steps from the house to the detached garage. Detach.

Open the back door and walk outside. Gently leave the food on top of the bench and move quickly back inside the house on silent feet and lock the door. Don’t knock, don’t make noise, don’t do anything to disturb the performance, to shatter the illusion of normalcy. True, the police would finally do something, but he might end up on the street after a 72-hour hold and you might end up in the hospital.

Consider sprinkling olanzapine on his food, but then consider that he might taste it and then what? Wonder how someone irrational is supposed to make rational decisions about treating his brain chemistry. Don’t bother about fine ethical points. Anything for him to be okay again, for a bit of happiness, for a full night’s sleep. Listen to the crashes and screams from the garage, muted by two layers of closed doors and windows. The neighbors don’t even look any more. Check to make sure your doors are locked, then take a hot shower and get dressed.

It is quiet. Peek out the window and see that the food is gone. Nothing ever comes back out.

Go to a meeting. Go to lots of meetings, at least once a week for fifteen years. This time, when the new faces point out that a judge might see things differently, that you might be seen as endangering him, that you could be seen as abusive, sit with your hands folded and do not speak. Think of yourself, they say, take measures. Know that they don’t yet understand that all you can think about is him. Tell yourself that they will know what it’s like in another twenty years.

Go back home to your bed and pull the sheet of despair up to your chin and stare at the ceiling and wonder how you will summon the energy to take measures. Shift slightly when fear puts its chilled arm around you and holds you against its hard ribcage until it’s time to get up and make the dinner you will leave on the dark green bench outside the door to your garage.

This story didn’t leave Diane either. She’s made it into a short film which is in post-production. You can read more about it here: http://www.thegreenbenchfilm.com/

Flash prose takes on many forms, Heather Luby wrote an entire life story as an index in her piece on Word Riot, Nameless, TN. http://www.wordriot.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/20110415-luby.pdf The piece works in a few ways. Read it straight down, or read it using the page references. Things mix up, juxtapose, and tell a larger story.

Matthew Salesses created a novel, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying out of pieces of flash fiction and the form suits the story well. A series of those moments show a portrait of a man who learns he has a five year old son and through glimpses of his life viewed through that form, Salesses captures the complexity of a makeshift family. A movement in moments.

I met a dear friend of mine, Lisa Cheby, through a piece of my flash fiction, which she had mistaken for prose poetry. I include it here to show the many forms flash prose can take. I also include it because this is one that came to me in a flash, when I was following an odd train of thought and it is a piece on which I’ve gotten more comments than any of my short stories or my novel. Flash can sometimes resonate on a more specific level with people than a lifetime of stories.

The Weight of Things

I was 102 pounds when I went to my Junior Prom. I was 103 when I lost my virginity. I was 130 when I college. I was 128 when I got married and 135 on my honeymoon. It was in Tuscany. I was 156 when I was five months pregnant. I was 156 after I lost the baby. I thought the hole left in me would have weighed more. I was 140 when I got pregnant again. I was 190 before I gave birth to my first child. I was 165 for the longest time. But I was
all the way down to 150 when he left me. I was 140, a lovely, slim, but supple 140 when my daughter went off to college. I was 130 when they diagnosed me.

I am 102 pounds again, and still, he won’t call.

When I am done working on a piece of Flash, I go back to the long form with a new respect for word choice, impact and a new take on time and space and what prose can accomplish. By going so small and concentrated, by pushing form, I find that perhaps I have fallen into habits in the long form which may very well benefit from being broken. I am ready to look at my longer work anew.

So I would invite you to dive into some flash fiction or non-fiction on any number of sites on which it is available. Word Riot, The Citron Review, Brevity. Take a look around and if the form makes you uncomfortable, jump in, play around and explore. You might just find something about your writing that you didn’t know before.

In my class The World In A Flash: Flash Prose, which starts July 9, we will look at the ways in which flash prose can stretch time and space, create those worlds in single flashes, and the wonderful expansive forms we can get out of our own prose. Within four weeks we will create new pieces, workshop them, edit them, and get them ready for submission.

Kate Maruyama‘s novel HARROWGATE was published by 47North. Her short work has appeared in Arcadia, Stoneboat, Whistling Shade and on Salon, Duende, The Rumpus among other journals as well as in two anthologies: Winter Horror Days and Phantasma: Stories. She teaches in the BA and MFA programs for Antioch University Los Angeles as well as for Writing Workshops Los Angeles and the inspiration2publication program. She writes, teaches, cooks and eats in Los Angeles where she lives with her family.