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by Lori Gottlieb
Berkley, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on May 23rd 2002

Stick Figure

In the Epilogue to Stick Figure, Lori Gottlieb explains that she was 29 years old when she discovered her old childhood diaries, and the book is based on her entries from when she was eleven.  She chronicles her growing concern about her food intake and imagined fatness, her struggles with her parents, her worries about her popularity, and her eventual understanding that she needs to eat in order to be healthy.  The book is written in simple language and Lori is often very sharp in her observations of the people around her; she is smart and funny, and these qualities make the book a quick and enjoyable read, even though it is about a very unhappy year of her life.

            If Gottlieb’s account of her family is accurate, then her anorexia nervosa seems to be largely caused by her mother and the mothers of her friends.  Her mother is constantly watching her weight, taking only a few bites of her meal, and putting the remaining food on the plates of her husband or son.  She does not give Lori the food, because she wants to make sure Lori does not get too fat.  Her friend Julie has a mother who has a shelf full of dieting books, and Julie is not allowed to eat much food at home.  The mothers are already making comments about wanting to make sure their daughters are pretty so that they can find good husbands, when these girls are still preteens and are just starting to play Spin the Bottle. 

            Stick Figure does a good job of conveying the distorted body image that Lori comes to have, and how her control of calorie intake and refusal of food is also a way for her to achieve some power and get attention in her family.  It’s also striking that her parents are extremely unsupportive of Lori early on in the story, and her refusal to eat is a successful strategy in changing their attitudes towards her.  Her pediatrician and then her psychiatrist try to get the family to communicate better with each other, but it is not until Lori ends up in hospital that any real change occurs. 

            Lori’s experience in 1978-9 might be quite different from that of girls with eating disorders today.  The most obvious difference between then and now is that she would quite likely be put on medication at some point in her treatment, certainly before she was admitted to hospital.  It’s also striking that she was not in group therapy or family therapy, both of which might be useful approaches.  So it is important to remember that this is just an account of one person’s experience of an eating disorder, and might not be representative of other people’s experience. 

            The main question the book leaves unanswered is to what extent Gottlieb and her editors rewrote her childhood diaries.  A note on the copyright page says that, “Some liberties have been taken with chronology.”  It’s likely, though, that those were not the only liberties taken, unless Gottlieb’s diaries were extremely detailed.  The diary part of the book is 233 pages long, and it would be very surprising if she had noted all the details of her life to fill that many pages when she was eleven.  So it’s probable that Gottlieb filled in some of the gaps to make the story more readable, and thus some elements of fiction have probably entered into the book.  But the larger question is whether Lori at eleven was an objective observer, and whether her family was really as dysfunctional and unable to deal with emotions as she describes.  It would have been interesting to get their side of the story as well. 

 

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.