A reader of this blog was kind enough to send me a copy of her own novel, Starving Hearts. The book is set in the 1950s, and is about a woman in college who is struggling with an eating disorder, which was virtually unheard of at the time. I’ve read several memoirs and novels on the topic of eating disorders, but this one was particularly interesting because it takes place in a cultural era that is foreign to me. My parents were kids in the 1950s, but they’ve never told many stories about their childhoods. However, I know it was a time of great social change—a significant increase in the standard of living in the middle class meant that many families who’d been poor, or even starving during the Great Depression were now quite affluent.
But excess creates its own diseases, and I would venture to guess that the 1950s were the era in which eating disorders became more pervasive, if not more publicized. Categories of mental illness were quite different at that point, still very much under the influence of Freudian psychodynamic theory, and eating disorders were not a concept that existed in the public lexicon. Susan Talberg, the protagonist in Starving Hearts, feels like she is the only person she knows who has such a messed-up attitude toward food, but anorexia and bulimia were probably far more common than most people realized at the time.
Additionally, the culture was a weird mixture of modern conveniences and outdated social norms. Women had achieved a somewhat increased status in society by the 1950s, but there was still a lot of sexism and inequality in the work force and the academic environment. Most women were under pressure to marry young, and therefore to be as attractive as possible, often while working and/or going to school. Many were forced into hasty and ultimately not very happy marriages, resulting in a family that was materially comfortable but emotionally starved, as is the case in Lynn Ruth Miller’s book. Family meals are the only context in which Susan feels she can connect with her mother, which leads to a pervasive pattern of disrupted eating that she struggles with for years as she finishes college and enters a marriage that eerily mimics her own parents’ dysfunction. Starving Hearts is well worth a read for anyone who’s interested in eating disorders, mid-century Americana, or just plain family dynamics.