Robert Radin suffered from anorexia back in the late ′70s and early ′80s, an era when the most visible representation of those with the illness were affluent young white women like Karen Carpenter. In his new book “Noche Triste,” Radin, who lives in Amherst, recounts the onset of his eating disorder and the alienation he felt as a young man seeking medical help, as well as his journey to Mexico in the depths of a deprivation-induced delirium. He intertwines his personal account with observations about the history of self-starvation: hunger artists who used starvation as a tool of performance in the late 1800s; religious women who starved themselves as a demonstration of spirituality.
Recently the Globe spoke to Radin about why he chose to write a memoir now, how he overcame his eating disorder, and why he sometimes wrestles with the notion that he had anorexia at all.
In your book, you describe the onset of your eating disorder in 1978 — nearly 50 years ago. Why did you decide to write about your experience now?
I tried to write about it 25 years ago, and I wrote about it as a love story, trying to emphasize the heartbreak of that relationship that I was in, the way I sort of became anorexic as a function of this relationship that kind of exposed me to the illness.
But it wasn’t a story that was properly framed by the loss of this girlfriend. It took me a long time to accept that. A turning point was realizing that, for me, anorexia was kind of a self-harm behavior. I didn’t want to die, I wanted to live! But it was a way of soothing myself, or finding some equilibrium, because there were all these scary feelings I was having. It wasn’t until I kind of realized that, that I was able to give [the story] a more appropriate framework, and background the love story. But that was hard for me. That’s why now.
I read in a different interview that you don’t necessarily think of what happened to you as an eating disorder per se. Can you explain that?
When all this happened for me, anorexia was very much in the popular culture. In 1983, when Karen Carpenter died, if you picked up a Glamour or Mademoiselle, there would be one story about anorexia. And then you’d open the magazine and see all these anorexic models. And you’re like, “All right, are they educating or are they selling?” The struggle for me was that I can’t locate myself in that. I describe being in this hospital that my girlfriend — she’s like, “You got to go see this doctor.” So I saw him. And he was just — he behaved unprofessionally. And then I see these women, these young women — there’s probably 10 of them walking from one double lock door to the other — and they’re anorexic. And I feel this kind of longing and anger and alienation.
I wasn’t an affluent woman in the 1970s, you know, that just wasn’t my story. But all the women in my life have always said, you know you had anorexia, right? If I think about it narrowly, then I would say I don’t know if I had anorexia. But if I think about in this broader way, which is kind of how it’s understood more today, then, yeah, that makes sense. I get that. And then I’m willing to go back and say, OK, maybe.
Given that nobody except your girlfriend identified your illness and you had no other support, how did you eventually overcome your eating disorder?
In the book, my girlfriend leaves me, I’m in Mexico, I come back to Los Angeles, and [the eating disorder] just got worse. I was so focused on my food and my rituals and structuring my day around when I was going to eat. I was living in a not-great area, and it was a very bleak environment. I went back to doing yoga, and one day I was in some posture on the floor, and I had the clear thought: “I’m gonna die.” I was 80 pounds. And then the very next thought was, “I don’t want to die.” I think this was sort of the seed of [recovery]: I don’t want to die, and nobody’s watching me anymore. It was just very clear: I can’t do this. That was the moment when things changed for me. It took years and years to claw my way back, to begin eating more. But I just feel very lucky because it all happened for me without treatment.
Do you feel it was beneficial to you to write “Noche Triste”? Do you want people to get something out of it?
I think that I just kind of want to blow up certain notions, certain conceptions. I certainly didn’t write it thinking it would contribute to the treatment of anorexia. But that would be a hope, certainly. For me, [anorexia] wasn’t static. I had it for years, and it kept changing, and resolving, different and often scary feelings.
In the book, you mention that the phrase that became your title — “Noche Triste” — is one that Mexicans use to refer to something bittersweet, something “that appears good but is actually bad, and something that appears bad but is actually good.” Were you applying that phrase to your experience with anorexia, or just life in general?
I mean, I think it’s presumptuous of me to apply to my experience with anorexia. But yes, I think that’s part of the story. It’s certainly not something I would have said at the time, but in many ways I became myself, you know, the human being that I am — it kind of begins here. A lot of those things happened in this kind of crucible. I’m not recommending it, of course, at all.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Francie Lin is a freelance writer in Florence.