When I was growing up in San Francisco, one of my mother’s best friends was a woman named Carol Becker. She had glossy blonde hair, a brick house bigger than anything I had ever seen before, a son named John who was my best friend, and anorexia nervosa.
For a short period Carol was plump, with round cheeks set off by a bob that ended right below her ears. Then, seemingly overnight, she lost weight and became a stick figure, a kind of walking Holocaust victim. She was still funny and loving, but scary to look at.
My mother explained to me (a child of 8) that Carol had a problem with food. It was a psychological condition, my mother said, one probably caused by her familial relationships. Every time Carol went to Menninger’s, the famous medical clinic, my mother would tell us she was on a journey to get well.
It now appears I knew more about Carol’s condition than her children did. Her youngest son, Daniel Becker, has written a poignant memoir, This Mean Disease, that describes what it is like to be young and know your mother is ill, but have it be so secret it affects everything else in your life.
Daniel grew up in that big house on Washington Street in San Francisco, a mansion he calls The Castle, and always felt partly responsible for his mother’s illness. His family’s silence on her condition meant he never quite understood why his mother was so skinny and frail. It also made him angry, feelings he did not come to terms with until years after his mother’s death.
“For all I knew we were a happy family with one atypical feature – that Mom was sick and had to go away, sometimes for long periods of time,” Becker writes in his memoir. “Nobody acknowledged that this was unusual or made us special in any way.”
It’s strange to read a book that describes events you are familiar with. I read This Mean Disease in a few hours – but have been unable to write about it for two months. When my mother read the first sentence, “Mom’s ashes are surprisingly heavy. Is it possible that they could weigh more than she did when she died?” she started to cry. The tears didn’t stop all night.
The book’s publisher, Gurze Books, which specializes in periodicals on eating disorders, says Becker’s book is the first memoir of a son’s view of his mother’s anorexia. I’m not sure if that is true, but it looks like Becker has been working toward this book all his life. After getting two master’s degrees – one from Columbia and one from Stanford – he earned two certificates in non-fiction writing from the University of Washington. And the book, in part, traces this journey. At the end of This Mean Disease, ten years after his mother’s death, Becker has finally come to term with anorexia. He has recreated himself through an extended network of friends and a new wife. He has closure.
“Over the previous years, I reclaimed much of the joy I missed out on the first time around,” Becker writes in the epilogue. “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”