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Book Review: Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena and Clare B. Dunkle

The voices in our heads can be so cruel. For Elena, and many other people struggling with anorexia, the voices in our heads are persistent with one overriding message: you are not good enough. The only way to become good enough is to lower the number on the scale. And as you step on the scale and watch that number go lower and lower and lower, you feel a sense of victory. But what you don’t know is that you are slowly killing yourself.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of the various mental health disorders. For Elena Dunkle, it is her heart that is failing. She is rushed to the hospital while living overseas on a military base. The doctor knows she has an eating disorder but Elena can’t admit it yet. But when her heart starts to fail it becomes harder to ignore. She is transported back to America where she is put into a hospital to receive treatment. And like most people with an eating disorder, one stay in a treatment center isn’t enough to “cure” her. She spends a great amount of time in and out of treatment centers, in and out of hospitals.

Elena Vanishing is a visceral true story told in present tense. But in the introduction Elena’s mother, Clare, reminds us that “this isn’t the story of anorexia nervosa. It’s the story of a person. It’s the story of Elena Dunkle, a remarkable young woman who fights her demons with grit and determination. It’s the story of her battle to overcome trauma, to overcome prejudice, but most of all, to overcome that powerful destructive force, the inner critic who whispers to us about our greatest fears.” Elena’s story is unique to her, and yet so many men and women out there are living similar stories.

Elena Vanishing is a powerful read. Heartbreaking. Real. Vivid. You get a strong sense of Elena’s experiences, what she thought inside her head, how her life unraveled time and time again. The cruel ways in which she thought of and talked to other in order to build herself up, to try and change the self talk inside her head. The insecurity and anger and loneliness and fear that drives her. At times she thinks she isn’t anorexic enough and that everyone in the treatment center with her knows that she is a fraud, a failure as an anorexic. It’s an emotional, self-destructive roller coaster that Elena is on and as a reader you are asked to climb aboard and hold on tight as you travel this journey with her.

Highly recommended. Kirkus called Elena Vanishing a “moving snapshots of a young woman’s struggles with anorexia nervosa”.

Publisher’s Book Description:

Seventeen-year-old Elena is vanishing. Every day means renewed determination, so every day means fewer calories. This is the story of a girl whose armor against anxiety becomes artillery against herself as she battles on both sides of a lose-lose war in a struggle with anorexia. Told entirely from Elena’s perspective over a five-year period and co-written with her mother, award-winning author Clare B. Dunkle, Elena’s memoir is a fascinating and intimate look at a deadly disease, and a must read for anyone who knows someone suffering from an eating disorder.

Elena Vanishing by Elena and Clare B. Dunkle will be published in May 2015 by Chronicle Books. There is a companion book called Hope and Other Luxuries written by Elena’s mother, Clare, which I did not read. I received a review copy in the mail and it came with some discussion questions which you can find at the Chronicle Books page.

For more on National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, check out check out NEDA

For more discussion about body image and eating disorders here at TLT, including an updated book list, check out these posts:

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