For many years I wanted to write about anorexia. But every door handle I turned came off in my hands, and I was left on the outside. Eventually, poetry gave me a way in.
When I stopped eating in 1977 there was no social media or internet. I hadn’t heard of the condition. After nearly four and a half years of being sexually abused, I made the decision to refuse food in order to take control of my entrances and exits.
Although I wouldn’t have been able to say this, I also believed that my body had forfeited the right to be fed as a result of what it had participated in. To starve it would be to clean myself.
There was additionally a pleasure in saying no. I remember liking food with defined edges like oatcakes and fruits with hard borders like oranges – as if by eating them I could grow my own rind.
The decision came upon me all at once when we were staying in a rented holiday apartment near Stranraer in Scotland at Easter. It was entirely white and modern. Outside there were deep green pine trees and blue lochs. It seemed as if the world had become a different place and I could choose my own path through it.
My feeling of empowerment was heightened by the copy of History Today that Mrs Webb, my teacher, had lent me. An adult publication, it made no concessions for nearly teenage readers. I remember holding it in my hands and thinking ‘I can follow this. I am someone.’
To enact my decision, when we went shopping for food I bought myself two flat stick figures of a man and a woman. They were facing each other, connected by his peg penis that slotted into her wooden midriff.
The first thing I refused to eat after buying the tiny 2cm dolls was white mashed potato. I can still see the undefined, helpless mound it made on my plate.
Over the next six months, my weight dropped to four and a half stone and fine down grew all over my body, which began to resemble that of a concentration camp victim. When I went back to boarding school for the autumn term, the nurse weighed me daily.
I used to get up at five in the morning, unable to sleep for hunger, and alternately pace the wooden boards of the single room I had been moved to, and get down on my bony knees to pray. I felt I had been given a direct line to God, who would soon be lowering the ladder up which I could climb to Heaven.
It was only when I was admitted to hospital, at my school’s insistence, that I discovered that there could be a way out which didn’t involve my death.
The two draft poems which follow are designed to be printed one after another so that ‘salvation’ lies under ‘almanac’ as a reminder of all the bodies of all the children and young people who starve themselves.
that April when I first
refused her I shut
to mashed potatoes
we went in June
to France for half-term
at her insistence I
like a raptor
at my first hairs
my new breasts
come August my skeleton
she watched me
from her deckchair
that September I spoke
with God directly
soon I’d step off the school
scales straight to heaven
the headmistress sent
me home in October
hospital pills melted
my mind like tallow
I ate from plates
as big as straw hats
when Dr Daly said
‘Alice, you’re not your mother’
like fruit which the knife opens
it peeled off my old self
I have no place
at the table
Pintade means guinea fowl in French.
Thanks to Ellen Crannitch’s ‘Fresh Approaches’ workshop members at the Poetry School to whom I read these drafts.