When Story Touches a Nerve by Beth Fehlbaum
In spite of the fact that my book, Big Fat Disaster, received a very positive review from a well-respected trade publication (“Starred” Kirkus Review), some readers have had a less than positive reaction.
How dare I write a book like this? Such a rollercoaster of raw emotions! A book that inspires such hatred for the mother, who treats her daughter with such disdain!
Some of the reviews I’ve read declare that the reader became so overwhelmed that they could barely stand to read more. Colby’s experiences, they claim, are too extreme.
Some readers claim to be suspended in a state of disbelief that anyone…ANYONE!!! —would see fit to tell such a story as Colby Denton’s.
People on the opposite end of the spectrum applaud my ability to so accurately portray what it is like to be in…that place.
Soooooo…perhaps you’re thinking, what does this ‘Colby’ do? Does she drown puppies? Hold satanic rituals over the bodies of her freshly killed parents? …Wait a minute: I know, I know: Big Fat Disaster is a how-to book for constructing a bomb, right?
None of the above.
Colby Denton, age 15, has the most common eating disorder in the United States. 3.5% of women, 2% of men, and 1.6% of teens are affected by it. Among women, it is most common in early adulthood. Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by eating a large amount of food in a short time, eating alone/hiding the act of binge eating, and feeling disgusted and ashamed afterward. It is a vicious cycle of eating to soothe one’s feelings, then being overwhelmed with negative feelings and shame, and then eating to soothe feelings and… you get the idea. People with Binge Eating Disorder are at a higher risk for suicide than those without it.
I developed Binge Eating Disorder in my teens, most likely from a combination of my personality, which tends toward impulsiveness, and a way of coping with the sexual abuse I endured at the hands of my stepfather, which my mother did nothing about when she found out. The eating disorder worsened in my early twenties, and by my late thirties I was a hundred pounds overweight and in the midst of a mental breakdown.
Simply put, my life wasn’t working. I entered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I take meds. The combination of CBT and medication saved my life, my marriage, and enabled me to parent my children in a healthy (ier) way.
Over a six year period of intensive work, I dealt with my abusive past, learned to live a non-dysfunctional present, and constructed a healthy, hopeful future. I learned “tools” for managing my eating disorder as well as the other disorders that my childhood saddled me with: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Anxiety Disorder.
I write what I know, and I know what it’s like to be Colby Denton. Now…was my father a candidate for the Senate who stole from his campaign and left my mother for a younger woman, as Reese Denton, Colby’s dad, does?
No. My father left my mother the first time when I was three days old, and was intermittently in and out of my life until he was finally out completely. I know the worthlessness a child feels when her father abandons the family. Like Reese Denton, my father’s explanation was that he needed to be somewhere else.
Was my mother a former Miss Texas who was horrified by my weight and appearance?
No. My mother was not a beauty queen, but I grew up hearing the words, “Oh, Beth, that’s so slenderizing on you!” My mother held me down to pluck my eyebrows when I didn’t want to do it. She obsessed over my acne. I grew up feeling stared at (in a creepy way) by my stepfather (because I was), and critiqued to pieces by my mom (because I was).
Obviously, appearance was very, very important in my family of origin. My grandfather—who, by the way, is probably still chasing anything in a skirt even at the age of 90—used to grab my chin and turn my face from side-to-side, looking for flaws and demanding what “those things” on my face were, to which I replied, through clenched teeth, “They’re called zits, Grandpa.” He grabbed me, pulled me onto his lap, and French kissed me when I was 13.
So, um…tell me again about extreme experiences that a teen girl could never have?
I was told again and again that my body was the reason that things happened to me: my stepfather put his hands on me again and again, because, according to him, my body tempted him too much. When I married my high school sweetheart at age 19 (still married, 29 years and counting), my stepfather told me that the only reason my husband was marrying me was to get me into bed. When I was 14 and told my mother about the sexual abuse that had been going on since I was 8, she treated me as if I was her husband’s mistress, as if, at the age of 8, when my teeny tiny breast buds began to emerge, I became a temptress.
Do you see what I’m saying? Over and over, I got the message that my body was everything. No wonder I reached the age of 38 and needed to be reparented by a therapist, guided to find out who I was, because I had no freaking idea beyond what I saw in the mirror.
That’s what happens to Colby Denton, too. She’s not sexually abused, but she is rejected because of her body. No one in her inner circle—the people who should love her the most—can see past her surface, to see who she IS on the inside. Nobody gives a shit, either. And when reviewers wonder why Colby doesn’t just go on a diet, since everybody else in her family is skinny, or why Colby would eat a gallon-sized ziplock bag of frosted cookies all by herself, it’s pretty clear to me that they don’t get what it’s like to be in Colby’s head.
Colby starts out alone, but over the course of the story, others reach out to her, because they see her as having value merely for being a human being. She finds allies, and, most importantly, she finds her voice so that she can BEGIN to overcome the twisted belief system she is growing up in. First, however, she has to learn to live in the light of the truth, and it starts with facing the truth about her role in a tragedy that makes her do the unthinkable in an effort to keep intact the tenuous thread of her mother’s acceptance.
Courage in Patience and Hope in Patience, my first two books, did not inspire the sort of visceral reaction in readers that Big Fat Disaster has. Like Big Fat Disaster, those books deal with what it is really like to be inside the head of a tortured person. In the case of the Patience books, the tortured person, Ashley, is clawing her way back from childhood sexual abuse. I wrote Courage in Patience, Hope in Patience, and Truth in Patience when I was in therapy. They are a teen girl’s journey out of Hell and into recovery. (Truth in Patience has not yet been published. For the low-down on availability of those books, see here.)
I have too much respect for readers as intelligent beings AND for what I know it is like—as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and an eating disorder—to be anything but straight up honest in my storytelling. I have Chris Crutcher to thank for that.
Sometime around 2004-2005, I was in the early super-painful days of recovery and looking for a book to read on the treadmill. I picked Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes from my teen daughter’s bookshelf, and when I began reading it, I could not put it down.
Walls inside of me broke down because I saw myself on those pages, and I found hope that I could survive the Hell I was in as I struggled with grief, anger, and acceptance. I owe my career to Chris Crutcher and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes because it was in reading it that I realized there is a place for my stories.
The truth is not always pretty. It can be disturbing, enraging, and enlightening. I found my way out of Hell by choosing Truth, and, regardless of anyone’s opinion, I am committed to telling Truth AND extending Hope, through my stories.
I owe it to the Ashleys of the world who are, like I did as a teen, sleeping in their closets at night to hide from their perpetrators. I owe it to the Colbys of the world who are at this moment cramming the now-empty cupcake box to the bottom of the wastebasket in hopes that no one will find out that they just inhaled every last cupcake and didn’t taste even a crumb, so great was their panic to make the feelings stop for just a little while. I owe it to the young women whose mothers see only the flaws, rather than the gifts.
I stand with those teens and adults, and all of us who wished to be loved as we are, and I will not be shamed into silence ever again.
Beth Fehlbaum is the author of Big Fat Disaster, Courage in Patience, and Hope in Patience. Her website is http://www.bethfehlbaumbooks.com She teaches English Language Arts in her day job and lives with her husband, three dogs, one cat, and an ungodly number of overfed raccoons in the woods of East Texas.