Down the Rabbit Hole: A Look at Literary Interpretations of An Eating Disorder

Sometimes an author will include quotes from other literary pieces to expound upon an idea or ideas that she or he is hoping to delve into and explore within their novel. Sometimes these excerpts speak the words and feelings the author cannot quite describe on their own, or feels that the excerpts can help add clarity to their writing and what they’re hoping to convey to the reader. Marya Hornbacher uses literary excerpts from the works of Lewis Carroll and from Sylvia Plath in her own memoir Wasted. These excerpts help her illustrate her own experiences and struggles with body image, related years of therapy, and the difficult and sometimes harrowing journey dealing with eating disorders.

Wasted is the story of Hornbacher’s struggle with her eating disorders, set in motion by a wild childhood that included sex, drugs, and a fear of food. She is able to trace the root of her problems and issues with both her own body image and her troubled relationship with food back to her early childhood days. As she moves into her teenage years, her life takes a dangerous turn into a world where she thrives (or believes she will thrive) from sex and an addiction to drugs. Her eating disorders become a way life, and the dangerous combination of the three triggers her continued downward spiral. While her road to recovery is a difficult one, one that is incomplete at the close of the memoir, Hornbacher’s story is a raw look into what it is like to live with such a damaging disease and a conflicted mental and emotional state of mind.

Each chapter of the memoir is bookend by quotes, excerpts from books and poems. The key to reading a novel that includes outside excerpts and inclusions, it to understand why those passages were specifically selected and placed throughout the book. In the case of Wasted, the excerpts demonstrate not necessarily what the chapter is about, but how Hornbacher was actually feeling in these situations and her physical as well as mental condition. Throughout the book she scatters lines from American poet, novelists and writer, Sylvia Plath, who expressed her own depression, suicidal thoughts, and feminist point of view through her writings. Hornbacher also includes several recognizable scenes and characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. These two literary choices have strong correlations to Hornbacher’s own struggles in life and her journey to find herself.

The most significant hardship in Hornbacher’s life is her battle with bulimia. In the book she is also diagnosed with anorexia, and she briefly touches on her experience with being bipolar, a split personality disorder. Each of these diseases and mental illnesses has different effects on the body and psyche, something that becomes obvious as the memoir progresses. While people can have different experiences with each, collectively people will share similar commonalities as the root of their problems.

Hornbacher was first diagnosed as bulimic, a disease that seemed to begin manifesting early in her childhood. Bulimia nervosa is most often diagnosed when “an individual regularly engages in binge eating and inappropriate compensatory behaviors” (Gordan 10). These behaviors can include things such as excessive exercising in order to keep the weight off or developing a binging and purging relationship with their diet and their food intake.

The disease bulimia carries the same characteristics as a “chemical dependency” and for those diagnosed with it, “their concern with weigh becomes irrelevant, for they have become hooked on the tranquilizing effects of gorge-purging” (Cauwels 2). This became evident in Wasted when Hornbacher transitions from elementary school to junior high. She states that “bulimia took over [her] life” and was “something [she] just felt like doing when things in [her] head were particularly crazy, or when [she] was angry or lonely or sad” (Hornbacher 60). She even references the chemical sort of addiction that she developed with her eating disorder, describing how “an eating disorder ceases to be ‘about’ any one thing … [and] it becomes an addiction not only emotionally but also chemically. And it becomes a crusade.” All of this pushes past the idea that eating disorders, and specifically Hornbacher’s situation, are not just about losing weight and becoming skinnier.

On the other side of the eating disorder spectrum, different from bulimia, anorexia nervosa is “diagnosed when an individual will not maintain a minimal healthy body weight, expresses intense fear about weight gain or fatness despite being underweight” (Gordon et al. 10). Often considered more desirable and “acceptable” than bulimia in the eating disorder culture, anorexia has been called the eating disorder that “glamour-hungry young women inflict upon themselves because of their obsession with thinness” (Cauwels 3). Hornbacher related her fascination in anorexia to this current assessment of the disease:

Anorexia—not just a “diet,” not just losing a little weight, but a full-blown, all-out big bang die-of-starvation Problem—looked like the path to my salvation. This is relatively common in bulimics who jump the fence. Bulimia disgusted me, and I was disgusted with myself as it was.

Throughout the novel are pieces of insight to Hornbacher’s feminist views, where she shares her view of the world. Her decision to include different Sylvia Plath poems within the chapters helps connects her view of femininity and its ties to her eating disorder. Plath’s own deep depression haunted her for many years and was strongest in during her college years, similar to how Hornbacher continued to deal with her eating disorder through high school into college.

Recognized as a confessional poet, her work often depicted not only her sadness, but also her anger and frustration with men and the world around her (“Sylvia Plath”). One of the poems Hornbacher selects to incorporate into her memoir is “Lady Lazarus”, one of Plath’s darker poems. The poem talks about her suicidal attempts, “one year in every ten,” and her experiences during this depression (Plath 2). At one point during her depression, Plath addresses male characters as “Herr Doktor,” “Herr Enemy,” “Herr God,” and “Herr Lucifer” (Plath 66, 80). These antagonistic nicknames towards the men in her life (both professionally and personally) mirrors Hornbacher’s own experiences with men. At one point, Hornbacher talks about how she described her psychiatrist as “Dokter Freud,” in what appears to be a tie-in to Plath’s poem (Hornbacher 77).

When Hornbacher describes an a psychiatric intervention attempt in eighth grade, she mentions the negative impact society plays on subconsciously promoting eating disorders and the societal pressures to be thin. That by being thin, a woman “proves her worth, in a way that no great accomplishment, no stellar career, nothing at all can match” (Hornbacher 81). These latter achievements that are supposedly surpassed by the concept of being thin are often in place based on patriarchal demands. Great accomplishments and stellar careers are often viewed as life goals that men often have and achieve.  This male-controlled idea is then glorified in the process of women being thin and being able to control herself. But Hornbacher alludes to the concept that women can’t control themselves. “A woman who can control herself is almost as good as a man” (Hornbacher 82). This follows the feminist argument that in today’s society, in order for women to succeed, they often have to shed their femininity and become more masculine, just as Hornbacher describes that a woman has to control herself like a man, using her physical appearance being thin as the example.

Hornbacher challenges the connections of female sexuality as well, and its place in society. As a young girl, she began to discover her sexuality and what it meant to use it as a power – a way to get ahead. Conversely though, she realized how female sexuality was defined and how others perceived it. “Why must the power of the female body cancel the power of the female mind? Are we so afraid of having both?” she asks. These questions are important and help us to connect to the rising dangers that societal pressures put on women who are trying to strike a balance while feeling secure in their own self worth.

As mentioned earlier, the other author that Hornbacher includes most often throughout the novel is Lewis Carroll, the author of the children’s stories Alice in Wonderland and the sequel, Through the Looking Glass. The stories focus on the character Alice Liddell, a young girl that finds crazy adventures in the world of Wonderland and her different interactions with all of the anthropomorphic creatures and people there. Alice goes through a series of physical changes and alternations, all while being confused as to who she really is. Whether it’s her confusion about her size or her own identity, the parallel themes are similar to Hornbacher’s own experiences. Alice’s adventures in Wonderland “entertain on many levels: as a humorous dream, as pure fantasy bordering on hallucination, as a text that revels nonsense and inconsistency in language and logic, and through its deeply insightful take on the psychological need to be explorative and genuinely creative” (Helle-Valle). Hornbacher’s experiences might not be the fantastical experience that Alice goes through, but she does go through the distorted feeling of change and being in another world and not being able to escape nor understand what is going on around her.

While Alice’s age is never mentioned in Alice in Wonderland, Alice is often interpreted and depicted in film and story adaptions as being around seven to eight years old. Her youthful age goes hand-in-hand with the idea that her adventures are all created in her imagination or as a dream, something a little girl would have. On the other side, nine-year-old Hornbacher was beginning not a dream but her nightmare, which would ultimately consume her life. Hornbacher described it as “one minute I was your average nine-year-old … the next minute I was walking, in a surreal haze I would later compare to the hum induced by speed … into the bathroom … sticking my first two fingers down my throat, and throwing up until I spat blood” (Hornbacher 9). Within these shared experiences, each girl had found herself on a rollercoaster she couldn’t get off.

The beginning of the second chapter in Wasted starts out with one of the early excerpts from Alice in Wonderland. Like Hornbacher’s own story, it ties it with Alice’s own trip down the rabbit hole.

“… She ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again” (3).

Thus begins Alice and Marya Horbacher’s descent. In a following excerpt, Alice is falling down the rabbit hole and is contemplating how after falling down such a tremendous distance, she would “‘think nothing of tumbling down-stairs!’ … Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?” (Carroll 4). With this particular portion the correlation that Hornbacher is drawing on is clear. Her spiral into a life with an eating disorder is like her falling down the rabbit hole, a seemingly unending trip. Like Alice, Hornbacher didn’t plan on falling into the hole; she simply fell into it while distracted by her goal. For Alice it is to follow the White Rabbit and for Hornbacher it is her eating disorder. “Once she is down the rabbit hole, Alice finds herself alone and in between her old world and a new reality,” for Hornbacher, it is her shift into her eating disorder her new reality.

Hornbacher also includes material from the fifth chapter in Alice in Wonderland, when Alice goes to speak with the caterpillar. She relates the scene to one her first experiences with a psychiatrist when she was fourteen. Alice and the Caterpillar are conversing, and the Caterpillar questions Alice to figure out whom she is. Alice responds with “‘I’m afraid I can’t put it any more clearly, for I can’t understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing’” (Carroll 60). The quote about seeing herself as different sizes strongly relates to Hornbacher’s own eating disorder, the origins of the disease, and the fact that many other girls experience similar situations. Body image is a very difficult thing to understand. That’s why some girls who are extremely thin see themselves through a distorted lens as bigger than they really are. The Caterpillar represents the different adult figures in Hornbacher’s life. Throughout the book she struggles with dealing with her parents and professionals in the medical field who attempted to treat her and help her figure out who she is, but often fail.

Beyond the lengthy text excerpts from Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Hornbacher also uses casual references to the book throughout her memoir. She relates her life to a common thread found in the Alice series, “I remember my entire life as a progression of mirrors” (Hornbacher 14). The title of the sequel to Wonderland focuses on mirrors, as Alice finds herself going through the looking glass to go on her adventure.  When it comes to defining ourselves, “our sense of self is highly influenced by our relations to others through confirming and mirroring responses” (Helle-Valle).

The comparisons continue between the two. At one point she describes the extremeness of her years at her high school boarding school as having an “undeniable Mad Hatter Wildness” to them. The Mad Hatter’s role in the series is profoundly characterized by his actions–being mad, a quality found often in hatters due to the exposure of mercury when creating the hats. Hatter is often a confusing character, shouting nonsense and confusing riddles, and often backwards, questions. Hornbacher is relating this feeling maddening feeling of confusion to the environment of her high school—“the hum of passion palpable in the studios … the constant music … the dramatic voices and failing arms in the cafeteria … the extremes” (Hornbacher 111).

Hornbacher begins the book with a quote from Alice in Wonderland of how she “went through the looking glass” and began to descend into the darkness that would consumer her for ten years before beginning treatment (Hornbacher 10).

For the most part, Hornbacher used the quotes and references to describe what her eating disorder felt like. “By contrast, if I so much as taste a bit of unsafe food on my tongue, it will not travel through my body in the usual biological sense but will magically make me grow, like Alice taking a bite of the wrong cake,” was how she equated her feeling towards eating and foods (Hornbacher 20).

For a writer to incorporate literacy passages from the poet Sylvia Plath may not be so improbable when exploring topics such as depression, confusing identities, roles, conflicting body image and the topic of feminism. For many who grew up with the Walt Disney 1951 animated version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, drawing parallels to the above issues and to complex diseases such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa would seem highly unlikely. But Marya Hornbacher’s memoir Wasted appears to be the glue that pulls and holds these female literary figures and stories together. She is able to trace her own life struggles with those of Plath’s. And in Alice, Hornbacher sees herself—a scared, lost girl who took a wrong turn.

Life is a journey, a series of changes, a string of questions, times of clarity and confusion. Sometimes the rollercoaster ride takes you on journey down a rabbit hole. The hope is that we’ll be able to climb out of the hole and continue our own life’s story, and hope for a happy ending.

Works Cited

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 1999.


Cauwels, Janice M. Bulimia: The Binge-Purge Compulsion. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983. Print.

Gordon, Kathryn H., Jill M. Holm-Denoma, Ross D. Crosby, and Stephen A.

Wonderlich. “The Classification of Eating Disorders.” The Oxford Handbook of Eating Disorders. By W. Stewart. Agras. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 9-24. Print.

Helle-Valle, Anne. “In Wonderland: A Phenomenological, Developmental and Self Psychological Analysis of a Child’s Playful Encounter with a New Reality.” Nordic Psychology 61.2 (2009): 16-28. 1 June 2009. Web.

Hornbacher, Marya. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. New York, NY:

HarperCollinsPublishers, 1998. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” Ariel. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Print.

“Sylvia Plath.” Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2013.

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