Secrets and Lies
Among the stories in the free Dark Terrains collection is a piece called Bulimia Daemonica, among my favourite of what’s presented there. As you can see on my website, the story was first published in 2002 in an anthology called Son of Brainbox. The concept behind this book was to present some high class horror fiction, alongside essays from each of the authors featured that explained the ideas that fed into the fiction â€“ the inspiration behind the story. Both the book and my contribution were reviewed well (here are two examples), and Bulimia Daemonica even picked up an Honourable Mention in the Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror that year.
The essay I wrote to accompany Bulimia Daemonica in Son of Brainbox, was called Secrets & Lies. While the story is collected in Dark Terrains, the essay is not. Instead, you can read it here. If it intrigues you, go grab the book and check out the story. You won’t regret it.
Bulimia Daemonica was originally inspired by a painting by Duncan Long which I saw online (I forget its name – sorry Duncan!). In terms of the story you’ve just read, the image was pretty much the moment when Jenny reaches out to touch her skeletal reflection in a strange blue land – underwater in the story here. You know the bit I mean.
What do you mean you don’t? You’re not reading the explanation before the story are you? Hell, what are you doing? Go on – go read the damn story! Think I sweated blood over it for the good of my health?
Been and come back? Good. Then I’ll continue.
At first, when I saw the picture, I thought of the disease Anorexia Nervosa. Between the mirror and the skeleton, it was an obvious starting point. Yet the more I thought about it, developing the story in snatched moments, the more I realised that what I really wanted to write about was the distant cousin of that condition, Bulimia Nervosa. There are several reasons for this, but the first and foremost was my experiences with a girl I dated many moons ago. You’ll forgive me if I don’t give you her name – I’ll call her Caroline for the sake of this telling.
I didn’t know that Caroline was bulimic when I first met her, nor when I started seeing her more intimately. One tearful, drunken night though, it all spilled out. I did a little reading the next day, mostly so that I didn’t say anything tactless or stupid to her in an unguarded moment, and what I discovered was radically different from what I thought I knew. That was when I realised that this was a disease that was deeply misunderstood by society in general.
First among the incorrect assumptions many people have, including myself back then, is that Bulimia Nervosa stems solely from a body image problem. For some sufferers this is a without doubt a factor, but it’s far from the whole story. As far as Caroline was concerned, the issue of weight and attractiveness barely touched on the problem. A whole range of complex issues come into play that made some related conditions seem simple by comparison. Most interesting and shocking is that the act of vomiting, perhaps more properly thought of as voiding, is an act of will. Hard for many of us to consider this fully, but this act of purging is actually an act of control. The relief many bulimics feel upon release is profound, and deeply settling (however briefly that sensation might last). I come closest to appreciating it by considering my own habit as a smoker. A cigarette – foul and unpleasant though it is – gives me an immediate sensation of relief and confidence, of control. Of course, this wears off extremely quickly, and then I need to do it again. The voiding of the bulimic follows a similar pattern.
I was also made aware of all the little rituals individual bulimia sufferers construct around this act – it’s almost religious in its intricacy and personal symbolism. Precisely what you binge upon before the voiding becomes important, and has much to do with the ease with which the particular foodstuff can be regurgitated, and how it tastes when it comes back up. The ways in which they try to cover the sound of the vomiting is also a factor, regardless whether there is anyone to hear, and the best time and place to commit the act also become significant. What remains important throughout is the ritual, because that’s another form of control, a way of imposing order on life. For many, it really is the core of their existence, to which everything else is secondary.
Another thing that fascinated me was the secrecy involved in the disease. Though most bulimics know full well what they are doing (it’s a difficult thing to fool yourself about), it’s almost as though the condition is something very special that they cannot share. While they might feel a sense of misery regarding their condition, still they hold it dear to them. Part of this is a fear of what people will think of them. Part of it too is the fear of losing this special thing, of having to stop if anyone found out. It’s addictive behaviour of the highest order. I knew precisely when Caroline voided. I had suspicions sometimes, but she was a past master at covering her tracks, and did so with me even though she’d told me of her condition. Partly ongoing shame I think, but partly a huge sense of protectiveness that wanted to keep me away from her special act.
I broke up with Caroline some six months or so after we got together, for reasons entirely unconnected with this story (actually, she ditched me for another man – crazy, I know, but there you go). She was undergoing counselling when we parted company, but that had been ongoing for the best part of a decade with no results. How do you treat someone who feels as though their disease is the only thing keeping them sane? I wonder where she is now, and how she’s doing, but part of me is scared to find out. A vast part of the inspiration for this story comes from my wondering about her.
Of course, the second part of the story deals with theatre – musical theatre in this case. As you may or may not know, I’m an actor as well as a writer. No profession I know attracts such addictive personalities as acting (though writing comes a close second). Probably this relates to the fact that unless you’re fairly compulsive, this is a profession you’re not going to get very far in. I thought that musical theatre might support this tale better than the alternatives. My own experience of that art is limited, except as a spectator. My preference is for musicals that blend singing and fine acting – Les Miserables is probably my favourite musical of all time. When I’m chronically depressed, this show picks me up through sheer emotional intensity. Take the finest emotions, enhance them with powerful music, and you have an opportunity for catharsis that is second to none.
Bulimia Daemonica is all about catharsis, when it comes down to it. I should point out here that I’m not a sufferer of Bulimia Nervosa, I merely have an informed layman’s knowledge. I realise full well that what I’ve said above, and in the story, generalises overly in places, and is too specific in others to cover everyone’s personal experience. One of the constant dilemmas I come up against in writing horror is the nature of taboo. Does writing a piece of fiction about a real life horror such as Bulimia mean I’m trivialising and exploiting the pain of real people? I usually come away in favour of writing the story. My fictions aren’t textbooks, nor are they intended as public information brochures. I hope I can at least raise the level of a reader’s understanding though, even if it’s only through mixing a portion of truth in with the fantasy. Bear in mind that sufferers of Bulimia Nervosa don’t usually have so clear a moment of epiphany and resolution as Jenny does in this story. In my fake world, the condition is shed far more easily than in real life.
Enjoy the story. Then have a think about it. I hope you both enjoy it, and find some of it profoundly troubling.
Oh, and here’s the art that accompanies the story in this collection, by Simon Wright. It appeals to me, that an image inspired a story that inspired an image.