Gray Lachmann was one of those women who kept a running tab of how many calories she had consumed so far each day. Always dieting, she would cease all eating when she got to 1,600: No more food until the following day. She’d brush her teeth and silently repeat, “You’re done,” even as she kept thinking about food.
In Diana Spechler’s new novel “Skinny” (Harper), all that changed when Bachmann’s obese father died suddenly. It was as though Gray — who felt guilty that their deteriorating relationship caused his death — inherited his hunger. She could no longer feel satiated; she lost all self-control. Alone at her local diner, she’d order three full dinners at once, and when, no one else was home, she’d have several bags of Chinese food delivered. Each time, she’d reassure herself that she wouldn’t binge again, but day after day, she found herself refilling her plate, inching up the scale.
“Skinny” is about people with eating disorders. While there are books for teens on the subject, this is about grown-ups like Lachmann who find solace and pain in cycles of overeating and dieting. With humor, sensitivity and an awareness that food is of course more than simply food, Spechler explores the connection between hunger and longing and love.
For her first novel, “Who by Fire,” Spechler was drawn to the world of religious seminaries in Israel, where many young people study, and here too she enters a world mostly closed to outsiders: the weight loss camp. In fact, the author went undercover to do the research for this book. For 10 weeks, she worked at a weight-loss camp. Though she had applied for a job teaching creative writing, she was asked to teach water aerobics. She did not tell the camp owners of her plans for the details she was absorbing as she was losing weight. The characters in “Skinny” are loosely based on people she met there.
In Lachmann’s case, she leaves her life in New York City to work at a camp in South Carolina, in order to unravel a family secret revealed to her about her Orthodox father and, she hopes, to switch off her voracious appetite. The novel opens on the first day of “Staff Training,” with all of the staff members in bathing suits, being weighed in. Before the campers arrive, she sneaks off to a local “all you can eat” restaurant, for her private “Last Supper.” The narrative takes some unexpected twists as the staff and campers lose pounds and gain some back.
“My intention was never to push an agenda,” Spechler says in an interview. “I wanted to tell a story, to get inside the heads of women with eating disorders, to show readers what it’s like to be obsessed with food and obesity.”
She says that at some point in her early adulthood, she realized that most people she knew had body-image issues or complicated, often painful, feelings about food. She points to social and media trends in recent years that have made people more open and interested in issues like the rising obesity rate: voices like that of Michael Pollan, author of “Food Matters” and other works, “who has risen about the noise”; and Michele Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign fighting childhood obesity.
Spechler speaks personally, noting that she “always had issues with my body image and disordered eating.” While she says that she has counted calories in her head for more than 15 years, she looks far from overweight; she has “gained and lost 15 pounds many times.”
“There’s a lot of pressure to talk about food and bodies in certain ways,” she says. “Things are OK to say, others are not: It’s OK when a woman says, ‘I shouldn’t have had that cookie,’ but it’s not OK to say, ‘I ate two boxes of cookies in one sitting.’ It’s not socially acceptable to admit to our appetites.”
“We’re compounding our shame when we’re not telling the truth,” she continues. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
When asked about whether eating disorders are a particularly Jewish problem, she has that she has looked into the question, but hasn’t found any supporting statistics.
“The same pressures exist for every woman,” she says, acknowledging that pressures to be thin may be more pronounced in the Orthodox community, where women are more open about wanting to marry young.
Spechler chose to set the book in a weight-loss camp, because she feels that these camps are “a microcosm of the diet industry. When she began thinking about the novel, she felt that if she went to a camp, she might experience some relief from her own issues related to body image. As is turns out, going to camp didn’t provide that relief — but writing the book did.
“I’m not going to say that writing this book cured me. I will say that I let myself be honest in the book — I have always been ashamed of having eating issues, I never really wanted to tell the truth. I got to anonymously tell the truth through these characters. It relieved me of the obsession, and I now have a better handle on hunger and satiety.”
In unexpected ways in the novel, Gray Lachmann also achieves a new lightness.