I’m currently rereading The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch. This is the first of her trilogy (thus far) of St. Benet’s books, which are a continuation of her six Starbridge novels.
This particular book, which narrates events in 1988, has several sections, each narrated from the point of view of one of the major characters. The main character of all three of the St. Benet’s books is Nicholas Darrow, an Anglican priest who is the narrator of one of the Starbridge books (set in 1968) who is the son of an Anglican priest, Jonathan Darrow, who was the narrator of another of the Starbridge tales (set in 1944). The Wonder Worker begins from the point of view of Alice Fletcher.
Alice has a problematic relationship with food. While she holds a Cordon Bleu and has continued to hone her skills as a cook, she also uses food as a crutch. At the beginning of the book we meet Alice as her Aunt, who has raised her since she was quite young, lies dying after a stroke. Nicholas Darrow and a doctor from the Healing Centre at St. Benet’s have visited Alice and her Aunt, and her aunt, after rallying to say a crucial farewell to Alice, which is the occasion for a deep emotional healing for both, dies the next morning. Shortly thereafter this passage occurs, and gives an snapshot of Alice’s dilemma at the opening of the novel.
Apparently my healing, such as it was, had left my compulsion to eat untouched. But what had I expected? A craving for a liquid diet of a thousand calories a day? I might fantasize about losing four stone and winding up with the ideal husband, but at heart I knew this was just a romantic dream which hadn’t a hope of coming true. I did feel a little better about myself now I knew Aunt had genuinely cared for me, but how could I ever feel more than a little better when I was still repulsively fat and likely to remain so? Stress always drove me to binge, and although I no longer had to cope with Aunt I still had to endure the strain of making a new life for myself.
I knew I needed the help Mr. Hall had suggested, but still I hesitated to phone Francie. I had taken a perverse pride for so long in struggling on alone; the struggle had given me a flicker of self-esteem, and besides, I had a horror of being a burden or a bore and putting myself in danger of further humiliating brush-offs. When I was much younger I had hoped to make friends but there seemed to be no place in the world of the thin for someone like me, and in the end I’d retreated into isolation. Loneliness was painful but at least it was silent, devoid of snide laughter and barbed comments. I was used to loneliness now. I thought of it as a chosen solitude and was only occasionally aware of being unhappy.
But this was a time when I regretted not having a friend. Picking up Mr. Hall’s card I stared at Francie’s number and told myself she wouldn’t want to hear from a fat nonentity, particularly a fat nonentity with all sorts of tiresome problems.
Alice’s problem with food is unfortunately far from rare. Her addictive pattern of binging on food is a way to deal with stress, as she recognizes in the passage above. Food can be so comforting: certain foods remind us of home or are associated with particularly happy memories, like cake with birthdays. In times of stress we can cease to regard food as the God-given gift it is to sustain life and to make us aware of the infinite beauty of the world (in the tastes, texture and presentation of food) and instead use it as a pain-killer. Alice uses food in the same way many drunkards use alcohol or many people use sex: as an analgesic.
Our society today idolizes and idealizes the thin and trim (the world of the thin in the passage above), just as it now frowns on excess drinking and smoking. If those are signs of a well-integrated, balanced personality, then they are indeed admirable. But lack of obviouis physical problems is not a guarantee of such integration. As the opening quote of chapter 1 in The Wonder Worker puts it:
We all have our favourite addictions to which we turn when we are under stress. For you it is food, while for others it can range from chemical substances to spending money or constant contact with others in order to avoid alone-ness.
Gareth Tuckwell and David Flagg
A Question of Healing